Most people do not realize the abundant variety of wildflowers that honey bees will forage from. Many of these wildflowers are something that most would consider to be ‘weeds.’ In my opinion, a ‘weed’ is just a flower that you haven’t met yet. And whether it has a name or not, honey bees don’t care; they like it anyways.
This year I was surprised to see my honey bees foraging heavily from a plant that grows in the wettest areas of my property. I grew up calling this plant Touch-me-not, but I now call it Jewelweed. As some of you may already know, Jewelweed is the key ingredient in salves that fight against Poison Ivy.
I really enjoy taking pictures of honey bees while they’re foraging. It has become a hobby. Today, I would like to share my hobby with you. Whether you are a beekeeper or a plant enthusiast, we can always learn something new about both. I know some beekeepers that don’t even recognize the plants in their own backyard. So let’s go over some plants from my area in the North Central Georgia Mountains. We border between the plant hardiness zones of 6b and 7a. Here’s a great list source for honey plants.
Any plant information and honey bee forage information given here will be coming from my own experience and one of my all-time favorite books, American Honey Plants by Frank C. Pellett, which I will refer to hereon as AHP. You can also read about this book on my Gear page.
Jewelweed I figured we could begin with the plant I already mentioned. This year I saw my honey bees all over Jewelweed. They foraged it for a good two weeks among other things. But it was something that they usually visited in the morning to early afternoon. When the day became hot, there were no honey bees to speak of.
Benefit to Honey bees So to become more aware of this plant it is important to know where it likes to grow. According to AHP, this plant “is common in wet places and along small streams in shady situations.” In the past, small amounts of honey were reported from this source in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Benefit to Us I used to whack this plant down whenever I felt like it but now I do my best to leave it alone. It’s also very effective against poison ivy. The best way to use it is to pull it up by its roots, smash it in your hands, and wipe the plant over the area you suspect of having touched poison ivy. Do not eat this plant, most parts of it are high in Selenium levels which are highly toxic. Here’s a little more information about Jewelweed and its capabilities against the most popular rash plant in the world, Poison Ivy.
Wild Golden Glow My very favorite flower to watch honey bees forage is this species of cone flower. In fact, my honey bees will work this till there is simply no more, even when Goldenrod is blooming they show preference to the Golden Glow.
Benefit to Honey bees According to AHP, “the cone flowers are not often mentioned as honey plants, yet they are apparently the sources of some nectar.” And after mentioning several cone flowers that honey bees will forage, it says that “only one, Rudbeckia laciniata, a tall growing perennial species widely distributed on low ground appears to be of any importance. Improved varieties of this species with deeply cut leaves are cultivated in gardens under name of golden-glow.” And it grows on a third of my property!
Benefit to Us The most popular cone flower known for its medicinal properties is the purple cone flower, also known as Echinacea. I have no personal experience using this plant, so I’m going to refer you here if you would like to learn more. And get yourself some seeds here.
Jerusalem Artichoke The first time I ever saw this plant, I was out taking pictures of honey bees on Jewelweed. This is a type of sunflower that the honey bees happily forage.
Benefit to Honey bees AHP mentions that “when these plants are sufficiently abundant they are the source of large quantities of honey.” This most likely is referring to the fields of sunflowers as we know it, rather than Jerusalem Artichoke, but with great care we could purposefully propagate this wonderful plant wherever possible.
Benefit to Us Did you know that Jerusalem Artichokes are edible? Not only are they edible but apparently they’re delicious. I have never had them but I fully intend to. The tuber is the part of the plant that you want. And for this I have linked a site that teaches you how to grow and harvest it, while the other site here offers a simple yet amazing looking recipe. Get your tubers here.
Dogbane A very inconspicuous blossom but the honey bees absolutely love it. These plants have a flower head that blooms into a bunch of tiny little white blossoms. They have a faint aroma, but that doesn’t keep the honey bees from finding it. My neighbors have a large patch of this along their property and they keep it there specifically for my beehives. That’s what I’m talking about! When it came time to cut it down, it grew back and bloomed for a second time. I actually found seeds available online here.
Benefit to Honey bees This plant species is also called, Spreading Dogbane. It has a special super power according to AHP in that it “usually produces quantities of honey in dry seasons, and in districts where there is not a large amount of precipitation.” Some beekeepers have even secured honey from it and say that it has a “superior flavor” to Fireweed honey.
Benefit to Us The greatest benefit to us aside from biological diversity is that it’s a honey source for our pollinators. You see, before Dogbane blooms it can be confused with Milkweed, a usable plant. However, Dogbane is toxic for human use. Despite this, there are ways to use it. You can read about it here.
Bull Thistle This has got to be one of the tallest wildflowers I have ever seen. It grows right beside my off-grid home and it easily reaches a good twelve feet tall. It’s a funny thing to watch the honey bees come to this flower though. Its light purple petals are so thin and spiky that when a bee approaches it has to pause and hover momentarily as it tries to find a way to the nectar deep within. Heirloom seeds are available here.
Benefit to Honey bees Unfortunately, AHP doesn’t talk about this particular species of thistle however, it does go over something called Globe Thistle. This Glove variety actually appears much easier for honey bees to forage from but I would still like to encourage the preservation of any thistle, as it can secure a food source for our little buggers. Get some seeds from Globe Thistle here.
Benefit to Us As with many wild plants, parts of this one are edible for you and I. The root and younger flower stems are the parts used. And as usual, I’m going to refer you to a site with more experience about using it then I have. Enjoy!
Dandelion This is the most widely distrubuted and recognized ‘weed’ in America. It’s probably the most devastated one too. Dandelions are constantly being mowed down in front yards everywhere and if not that, they’re sprayed with Round-Up, the scourge of the earth. But they are a resilient flower, thank goodness. I truly wish that there were more dandelions in the nearby area of my apiaries. Here are some non-GMO seeds.
Benefit to Honey bees Dandelion is a great source of pollen for early spring buildup. AHP says it perfectly, “The beekeeper has little to complain of from these weeds, as there is nothing of greater value during the short period of bloom.” And, “Large quantities of pollen as well as nectar are produced.”
Benefit to Us This is an easy one. The entire plant is edible. I have had the raw, bitter greens, the ripe blossom heads and even Dandelion Root Tea. I share the plant with my wife and our little bunny. Here are some great sources to learn more about Dandelions and their many uses. One of the most useful books I have that tell you exactly how to use a plant is this one. It’s one of my first go-to references.
Clematis, also called Virgin’s Bower I love to watch this delicate vine slowly make its way up anything it can find as summer approaches. Eventually, it buds all swell up and pop open with an aroma similar to clean linens. The honey made from this tastes like a rich, light butterscotch flavor.
Benefit to Honey bees I have seen honey bees compete over these flowers. AHP confirms this, “It is much sought by the bees, and apparently produces considerable nectar.” It goes on to say that a beekeeper by the name of Mr. W. H. Turnbull of British Columbia, harvested quite a bit. “Four tons of straight wild clematis honey were obtained.” Four tons? That’s awesome. And I would gladly produce this honey over the popular Sourwood honey any day. Four tones is enough honey to fill almost thirteen 55-gallon drums.
Benefits to Us I’m not certain if this plant is usable for us humans but I did find some interesting information about it if you would like to learn more. It seems its primary benefit is honey bee forage, which is awesome! I never cut this down until after the bloom is over.
There are so many more wildflowers that I could include here today. I’m going to follow up with more posts like this one. I really appreciate you being here and I hope you have learned something more about ‘weeds’ and honey bees too.
I would like to encourage each of you to observe more before you mow or weed. Is it something that our pollinators could benefit from if you left it? And if you do decide to get rid of some plants you don’t want, please put some gloves on and use some hand tools rather than spray poisons on the earth. Poison sucks, it kills honey bees and it will eventually get into your water table. Just a thought. Try using a natural weed killer instead.
Personally, I like flowers and I love honey bees. I should keep my yard a bit more landscaped than it is but I find it difficult to cut down my bees’ food sources. Until next time remember,
~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee.~
Jonathan Hargus/Beekeeper Extraordinaire