Bee-friendly gardening

Attract the world’s most effective pollinators with nectar- and pollen-rich native plants

By Arvind Kumar

A bee in a California native garden

One cannot overstate the importance of bees to humans and the environment. Bees are called the world’s star pollinators because they pollinate one-third of our food crops. The almond crop of California, for example, is entirely dependent on honey bees for pollination.

Pollinator populations worldwide have been declining due to habitat loss from human development. Honey bee populations in particular have plummeted since 2006, a phenomenon dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. No one fully understands the reasons why, but pathogens and pesticides are among the suspects.

Most people are familiar with the European honey bee (originally from South and Southeast Asia), but few know that California is home to 1,600 species of native bees. Most are solitary in nature, do not build hives, and do not produce honey or wax for human consumption.

However, native bees are 200 times more efficient at pollination than honey bees! According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, pollinating an acre of apples requires 60,000-120,000 honey bees; the same area can be pollinated by 250-750 mason bees. Native bees can play just as vital a role in agriculture as they do in the ecosystem.

You, the home gardener, can support and rejuvenate the bee populations in your neighborhood. Dr Gordon Frankie of the University of California, Berkeley, has been studying bee habitats, and his recommendations are:

  • Eliminate the use of pesticides
  • Plant a diversity of nectar- and pollen-rich plants (10 or more species)
  • Mass each plant in patches 1 square meter or larger
  • Choose plants that bloom in succession over the seasons
  • Avoid excessive manicuring
  • Set aside some bare patches of soil for nesting

Many native plants provide nectar and pollen to bees of all kinds. Here is a short list of native plants I have grown successfully in my garden, arranged in order by time of bloom.

California is home to an amazing diversity of two sun-loving shrubs:manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp) and ceanothuses. They come in a variety of forms, from groundcovers to subshrubs to large shrubs and tree-like forms. Manzanitas burst into bloom in the winter, while ceanothuses bloom around March. The flowers are decorative as well as a rich nectar and pollen source.

Spring provides a floriferous feast for bees with a riot of wildflowers, among them: California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), Tansy-leaved Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia), Blazing Star (Mentzelia lindleyi), Globe Gilia (Gilia capitata), Bird’s Eye Gilia (Gilia tricolor), and the shade-lovingChinese Houses (Collinsia heterophylla)

Spring-flowering subshrubs include Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus) and Woolly Bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum). Coffeeberryshrubs (Rhamnus californica) have insignificant flowers, but the bees have no trouble finding them. California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) andHolly-leaved Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) are flowering trees loved by bees and other pollinators. (Note that California buckeye is mildly toxic to honey bees, who will avoid it if other choices are available.)

In late spring, the pink blooms of Elegant Clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata) draw the bees, as do the lavender blossoms of Coyote Mint (Monardella villosa) and the white flowers of Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).

The star among summer-flowering native plants are the buckwheats. They come in a variety of sizes and forms. The subshrub California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) is especially attractive to bees and other pollinators, and easy to grow. Red Buckwheat (Eriogonum grande rubescens) is smaller, more delicate, and appealing.

Many plants from the sunflower family bloom in summer, such as Gumplant (Grindelia sp), California Aster(Aster chilensis), and Lessingia (Lessingia filaginifolia). Elegant Madia (Madia elegans) is a delightful, fragrant annual whose flowers open in late afternoon and close by 10am. California Sunflower (Helianthus annuus) grows well in full sun with some summer moisture.

This short list of bee-friendly native plants is just a sample of the diversity of native plants available to the home gardener. When you grow them, you can be sure you are helping bees, native and otherwise, other types of pollinators, and the environment in general.

Arvind Kumar has been growing native plants in his Evergreen garden since 2000.


  • Urban Bee Gardens
    This website, maintained by the University of California, Berkeley, contains a wealth of information about bees, native and otherwise, plants, and gardening basics.
  • Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild
    This is a group of beekeepers, amateur and professional alike, which meets first Mondays at a local library. The website has helpful information about getting started with beekeeping.


  1. This is a wonderful article. We live in the chaparral and were burned out by the wildfires and it has been exciting to see how nature comes back and this year after all the rains, it is just beautiful here. We have a lot of different pollinators visiting our native plants. We have many native ceanothus plants, many new ones and a few manzanitas survived the fires. Our hills are covered with yellow, purple, red pink and white flowers and lots of green shrubs. We also have Toyon, Engelmann Oaks, Coast Live Oaks and Hollyleaf Cherry which is in bloom right how and covered with bees. We have a new hive and are anxious to taste our Chaparral Honey. Thank you for articles like this. Learning about our ecosystem and all the wonderful life we find here, so exciting!

  2. The description of California Buckeye as “mildly toxic” to honey bees and the claim that they avoid it is not what beekeepers will tell you. Honey bees love the buckeye and it is poisonous enough to kill a whole hive according to websites at UC Davis and websites advising beekeepers.

  3. Some of these plants may be CA native but are NOT honeybee friendly. Join your local bee guild and learn that many professional beekeepers close their hives when the CA buckeye blooms (it constipates and kills honeybees.) Also, sticky monkey is really bad for honeybees. Honeybees are not natives and some of our native plants are really killers for them. Bee Friendly plants? DEFINITELY NOT EVERYTHING ON THIS LIST!!!!

    1. It literally says this is for native CA bees, not honeybees. They are not one and the same.

  4. Thank you for posting an informative article about pollinators and the bushes, flowers and flowering trees they are attracted to.

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