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Pollinator Plant Series: Part 1

Today is the beginning of our Pollinator Plants Series, where I’m going to share four of our favourite pollinator plants with you each month until I have made it from A to Z! This first post includes a bit of an intro and 3 tips for selecting plants for pollinators to start you off on the right foot.
While it is great when you can include native plants in your garden, there are also many non-native plants that are beneficial to pollinators. For this reason, I am using 100 Plants to Feed the Bees by the Xerces Society as well as the North American Native Plants online database to ensure that we share a well-rounded selection of plants that we recommend for people in our Southern Ontario communities. I’ll also link to other sources of information as I go so that you can learn more if you desire. Here at Nith Valley Apiaries we are slowly incorporating as many of these plants as we can into our on-farm pollinator spaces, so feel free to drop by for a visit to see the bees work this summer!

Before I share our first four plants, here are our three tips to keep in mind as you select plants for your landscape:

1) A long season of bloom, with some plants blooming early in spring and others late in fall, is very helpful to pollinators. This variety of plant sources will benefit pollinators by providing a very healthy variety of pollen and nectar sources for their diet.

2) Choose native when you can, and then choose old-fashioned and non-hybridized varieties of plants, as these usually have the highest pollen and nectar loads. Sometimes hybrid varieties of flowers are bred so that they smell good to humans without leaving good nectar and pollen levels for the pollinators.

3) Always ensure that your plants are being grown in pesticide free greenhouses. Neonic based pesticides are very harmful to insects’ neurology, affecting their ability to travel and remember where they are going, among other things. You can learn more about that here.  

Now for our first four pollinator plants:

anise Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum
Native Perennial
Light: sun/part-sun
Soil: well-drained
Height: 3-5 feet
Bloom Time: June-September
Flowers: Purple
Which bees love it most?
Anise Hyssop attracts a diverse variety of bees, butterflies and occasionally even hummingbirds. Honeybees love anise hyssop and it is said to produce a light honey with a mild minty flavour, however this would require at least an acre of anise hyssop in order to harvest as pure an anise hyssop honey as possible.
Human Uses: The leaves have a sweet licorice-mint flavour and can be used as a culinary herb. They should be harvested close to when the plant is about to flower. They can be dried and stored in glass jars. The flowers are edible and can be used in salads, drinks and desserts. Don’t forget to leave most of the flowers for the butterflies and honeybees! Consider taking 1/3 or less for yourself and leaving the rest to support the pollinators.
Other beneficial pollinator plants in the Agastache family include Agastache scrophulariifolia and Agastache nepetoides, both of which are also very pollinator friendly.

Aster, Symphyotrichum

Native Perennial
Light: sun
Soil: well-drained
Height: 2-3 feet
Bloom Time: August-September
Flowers: Blue/Violet
Which bees love it most?
Bumble and honeybees like asters, but too much aster nectar can give honeybees dysentery. Mining bees, the polyester bee and the long-horned bee specialize to asters and are much more in love with them! Caterpillars of the pearl crescent butterfly, northern crescent butterfly and the arcigera flower moth also love asters. In addition to this, asters may help fuel the fall monarch butterfly migration, so what’s not to love?!
Human Uses: Asters are great additions to rock gardens, borders and even along roadsides. Historically, parts of the Aster plant have been used for medicinal purposes, though one would need to research this more extensively before using any parts of the aster plant topically or internally.

basil Basil, Ocimum
Non-Native Annual
Light: sun
Soil: average
Height: 1-2 feet
Bloom Time: June-August
Flowers: Blue/Violet
Which bees love it most?
Basil is well loved by bumblebees (which happen to be great tomato pollinators - and basil also grows well paired with tomatoes in the garden!!) as well as a variety of small wild sweat bees, beneficial syrphid flies (they also eat aphids!), tiny beneficial wasps and honey bees.
Human Uses: Basil is a well-loved culinary herb with many uses! I don’t think I need to expound upon that here, rather a reminder: if you harvest all the basil for yourself and don’t let it bloom, you will not be helping the bees out at all. Remember to harvest what you need and leave some for the bees; and consider planting a larger patch of basil if you want to use a lot yourself! Basil also makes a great strip crop between other food crops as a method of attracting both pollinators and pest control insects and works best for pollinators if done in a mass planting. Another basil species that bees love is Tulsi Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum, which I find makes a great tea.

Basswood, Tilia Americana
Native Tree
Light: sun to shade
Soil: average
Height: 80 feet
Bloom Time: June
Flowers: white
Which bees love it most?
Honey and bumblebees, metallic green sweat bees, flies and many beneficial wasps all love the basswood blooms. Basswood trees also attract large populations of aphids, who release a sugary excrement that attracts many bees and wasps, who collect this as well. The basswood tree is also a caterpillar host plant for the mourning cloak, red-spotted purple and eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies. 
Human Uses: Basswood is very similar to little leaf linden, it's European cousin, which is also a valuable nectar tree. The blossoms of the linden are said to produce a honey of medicinal value, and it is quite likely that honey produced from nectar of the basswood tree also has medicinal value, along with being delicious! We occasionally get basswood honey from our bees, though it varies each year based on the season. Basswood trees have a very short bloom period of about 10 days and their nectar flow is irregular, with some seasons being higher flow than others. It is best to mix basswood trees in with other species, as mixed populations produce more nectar for pollinators to access.

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