Fall Blooming Plants for Bees

While the chickens ran around one evening, I planted some new plants in the pollinator bed: Sedum ‘Autumn Joy,’ Zauschneria ‘UC Hybrid,’ Gaillardia ‘Golden Halo,’ and an ornamental Oregano called ‘Brittany Show.’ Additionally, I replaced the dead sorrel and Agastache foeniculum (Hyssop) in the herb bed with Stevia and Agastache foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’ (‘Golden Jubilee’ Hyssop).

Our bees are having a hard time this fall. When Sarah and I inspected hives in July, we thought we were in for a bumper crop of honey. When I started going out in early September, however, I discovered a different story. Most of our hives don’t seem to have enough stores to get through winter.

Many beekeepers in our area are experiencing the same phenomenon. The consensus is that our mild winter and cool summer pushed the plants that comprise our summer nectar flow to bloom much earlier, and that our lack of usual rainfall reduced nectar production. The bees accordingly were up to their roofs in honey back in July, then started using their stores as summer wore on (US Honey Report September 2013).

While ‘Fall is for planting’ might have begun as a marketing ploy for nurseries to encourage sales during a slow time, it is a great time to plant. And, it’s an especially great time to plant fall bloomers for the bees. Here’s a list of plants I see humming with activity in my travels. They do well in USDA Zone 9b, but many will perform in other zones, too (click on the link to find your zone).

  •  Agastache species: Both the herb (A. foeniculum or Hyssop) and ornamental species (especially A. mexicana and A. aurantiaca cultivars & hybrids) attract bees, but the ornamental species bloom all summer and fall for us. I’m not sure how bees get to the nectar, because the flowers are long, but they must.
  • Alyssum: An annual that takes care of itself. Bees hit it when there’s not much else happening, like now.
  • Baccharis pilularis & cultivars/Coyote Brush: A California native not necessarily attractive enough for a small garden, but good for hot slopes and farther-away spots.
  • Basil: It’s hard to let basil go to flower, because the leaves become spicy and bitter, but if you do, the bees will come in droves. I like to cut basil back on rotation: I cut a few plants back for me, and leave others in flower. Then I return and cut back the ones in bloom, and leave the ones I’ve been harvesting to flower and so on.
  • Borage: Always a favorite, whenever it is blooming. Ours reseeds itself all year long, and blooms whenever it’s ready till late fall.
  • Caryopteris x clandonensis cultivars, such as ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘Blue Mist’/Bluebeard: This is a woody, deciduous perennial/sub-shrub that most folks around here don’t appreciate. That’s too bad, because it is one of the best fall bloomers for bees.
  • Cuphea hyssopifolia/Mexican Heather: This one surprised me, but I have seen bees on it throughout the year, especially in fall. This plant has faded from the nursery scene around here because it freezes most winters, but I have some clients who still have it, and it’s a keeper.
  • Gaillardia grandiflora cultivars/Blanket Flower: A bee favorite, but not always a long-lived perennial, especially if it gets too much water. ‘Oranges & Lemons’ often blooms year-round for us. Gaillardia is worth it, even if it’s short-lived.
Gaillardia 'Golden Halo'

Gaillardia ‘Golden Halo’

  • Lavandula stoechas & varieties/Spanish Lavender: Reblooms for us about now, and much appreciated by bees, who generally love lavender.
  • Loquat: This might be a winter bloomer, but ours is blooming now this year.
  • Nepeta x faasseni and cultivars/Catmint: Follows up its summer bloom with a lesser show through fall.
  • Origanum vulgare/Oregano: The edible oreganos, both Greek and Italian, bloom about mid-summer through fall. Italian oregano in particular gets rangy and the bees’ activity on it never really slows, so I always struggle to decide when to cut it back. This year, I cut it back in stages (see Basil above). It’s already reblooming.
  • Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Irene’/’Irene’ Trailing Rosemary: A trailing form that stays flatter, and seems to bloom most of the year.
  • Salvia chiapensis/Chiapas Sage: For us, blooms nearly year-round, until it gets very cold. In fall, it is much visited.
  • Salvia ‘Hot Lips’/’Hot Lips’ Sage: Another year-round favorite, till it gets cold. You’ll also see hummingbirds and various native bees on this one.
  • Sedum spectabile cultivars: Definitely a bee favorite. I only wish it had secondary blooms and bloomed longer.
  • Thymus/Thyme: Another herb that blooms summer and early fall, or longer, depending on how much water you give it. English thyme seems to bloom longest, and the creeping or groundcover cultivars will throw a smaller second bloom in fall.
  • Trichostema lanatum & cultivars/Woolly Blue Curls: A California native that blooms in the pollinator bed nearly all year, till it gets very cold. I have read that the honey from Trichostema crystallizes quickly.
  • Vitex agnus-caste/Chaste Tree: Begins blooming in later summer and continues into early fall. It really does turn into a tree if you don’t prune it hard every year, but even then it gets large. Luckily, there are some smaller selections, such as ‘Amiguita.’

12 Responses to Fall Blooming Plants for Bees

  1. That’s a wonderful array of plants for the bees and I do hope they resolve some of your bees’ issues finding enough pollen and nectar. Over the past few years I’ve planted up supposed bee-loving plants and shrubs but what do the pesky little girls do, head straight out the bottom of my garden to who knows where ignoring all of my best intentions! We are struggling this year due to a late summer and even as we head towards November some days are warmer than any we had during last year’s summer months and the queens have continued to lay eggs just when the colonies should be declining in numbers. We have decided to throw away our bee books this year and go with our instincts since two of our four hives are taking sugar syrup feed and at the same time are extremely cross every time the roof is removed, the other two have taken about 3 pints only but at least seem quiet and content. You don’t mention feeding your bees sugar syrup; is it something you do or perhaps feel it best to leave them to their own devices and nature?

    • Hi Jackie:
      I am always chagrined to find our plum tree absent of bees when it is in bloom, and the damn thing is about 3′ away from the nearest hive! We have heard bees called ‘optimizers’ rather than ‘maximizers.’ Instead of a colony foraging a bunch of trees in bloom, for example, they will forage the biggest and bestest, thereby ‘optimizing’ their efforts on that or those sources.

      We have had a strange summer, too. When I went out to harvest honey in September, I found at least 3 of our 7 hives to be lacking the recommended amount of capped honey for winter, which for us is 3–4 full frames per colony. At last check just this weekend (October 26), as I condensed one of those colonies, I found about 2 or 3 partial frames of curing honey. This is the colony that had zero stores going into last winter.

      We decided not to feed last winter, and we made the same decision not to feed this year. We want to cultivate and propagate those bees who have the (inner) resources to take care of themselves, without our assistance. This goes for mite control, too, and hygienic behavior. We want these colonies to be the ones who survive, who send their drones out into the world to mate. We hope that by allowing nature to take its course, we are doing our part to help the bees, overall, survive.

  2. I envy your freedom to be able to allow your bees and nature to do their own thing but as mentioned before, we have national bee inspectors that can visit at any time and have final say on a colony’s fate. This autumn we tried a new varroa treatment that’s just come on to the market that turned our usually calm and uneventful placing of one strip into our hives for the winter into a nightmare because although organic these foam pads had to be put in the hive on a weekly basis over a month and the bees hated them, in fact tended to drag them down through the frames and out the door within a very short time, Time will tell if they have been of any use but whatever, never again!

    • Hi Jackie:
      Yes, we suspect that if we lived in a less populated area, our hives might come under more scrutiny by local government officials. There are city and county ordinances that govern how many hives we can have, where they can be placed, etc., but because we have not filed as commercial beekeepers, we are not subject to inspections. If we wanted to sell our honey commercially via whatever venue, we would certainly have to register and we would be inspected. We’ve chosen not to precisely so that our beekeeping choices remain ours. It is certainly a luxury in our case; I think I might give up bees if my methods were regulated. Seriously.

  3. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share this knowledge. I’m a new beekeeper (2 top bar hives) and looking at treatment free options. I found you while searching for bee friendly plants that bloom during late summer and fall. I’m leaning towards blanket flower and bluebeard, zone 9. After reading about your plum tree I suppose at least I’ll be giving a neighbors bees something to work while mine are at their place!

    Always refreshing to read something positive about natural beekeeping too.

    Thanks again!

    • Thanks for writing, Bob! Nice to meet another beekeeper interested in treatment free options!!! Hope the blanket flower and bluebeard grow well for you. Let us know if you find other good late bloomers for your bees. We are always on the hunt!

  4. This was fun. I stumbled on your site looking for plants to flower in fall here in SE Alaska. Obviously we are Zone 4 in Skagway so not the same as yours, but basic information is much appreciated.

  5. Hi Kelly,
    I just came across your blog while looking for fall blooming bee plants. I’m especially intrigued by your mention of growing Wooly Blue Curls. They are native here in S. Calif and I’ve been collecting seeds from ones I see when hiking. I’m curious to know how you got your plants, did you grow them from seeds (and how did you germinate them?) or buy the plants somewhere. I’ve read they need fire (ie brush fire)
    to germinate.

    The Wooly Blue Curls in my neighborhood (Topanga Canyon, S.Calif) bloom once and that was at least a few months ago. I have read that their bloom can be extended with a little watering, but that they definitely don’t like much water…in fact out here they usually get some rain in the winter months(Dec-Mar) and usually nothing else until the next Nov/Dec. They thrive but only bloom the one time(for about a month). So I’m very interested to know how you take care of them in your pollinator garden section. I’d like to grown them and have an extended blooming season.

    John

    • Hi John:
      Thanks so much for writing, and sharing your insider knowledge of woolly blue curls. I purchased my plants from Suncrest Nurseries in Watsonville, CA, which also grows a variety called ‘Midnight Magic’ (a hybrid of Trichostema lanatum and T. purpusii from Mexico). My T. lanatum was fairly short-lived (4-5 years), and when it died, I replanted with ‘Midnight Magic,’ which is 2 years old now. Both had nearly year-round bloom, and I suspect that’s because of our climate. We tend to have warm summers (high 70s to mid-80s) with some heat waves (high 80s to high 90s), and we are close enough to the coast to get fog consistently for about 2 months in the summer. My pollinator bed is hand-watered. In the days of T. lanatum, I watered more faithfully (1x/7–10 days in summer) than I do now (maybe 1x/month in summer). Of note, I used ‘Midnight Magic’ once in a landscape I designed, and 5 years later, it is still an attractive addition, though to my eye, it might be gently waning. In this case, it is planted on a slope, albeit towards the bottom, and may be overwatered, as the clients decided they wanted more ‘color’ on the slope and planted non-natives. I hope this helps! By the way, Suncrest Nurseries is wholesale, but I know they have Southern California routes.

  6. Hi, we let some leeks perennial-ize and flower – the bees seem to love them as much as the lavender, and they are beautiful.

    • Hi – Our red onions never really formed nice bulbs this fall/winter, so when they started going to flower this spring, I let them. The bees have loved them. I find this fascinating in light of all the other plants, like Spanish lavender, citrus and borage, for example, in bloom at the same time.

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