Long before I took an active interest in beekeeping, I always wondered about how come plants and their flowers were so colorful in the first place. I wondered why tall trees were only ever really green, with not much flowers on its branches. It dawned on me at some stage during my childhood that the reason why flowers were so colorful and pretty in the first place had nothing to do with pleasing us. It had more, much more to do with the birds and the bees. Yes, I subsequently learned during our biology lessons at school that this ploy on the part of plants was entirely necessary.
You see, plants really need birds and bees to help them survive and grow into the next season. They need the birds and the bees to prolong the existence of their species by relying on them to help cross-pollinate. Birds and bees actually have a bit in common, after all. They are attracted to the same things. Depending on the species (plants, birds and bees), the birds and bees are after the plant’s tasty and succulent nectar and pollen. While the birds and bees tuck in to their tasty meals, or busily gather as much as they can hold to take to their nests or back to their hives, dastardly pollen gets stuck to the legs of both the birds and the bees.
The reason why we have such colorful and pretty flowers to admire is for the benefit of plants, birds and bees alike. It’s like making a retail store front window display look as attractive or enticing as possible in order to attract the necessary foot traffic through the front door. The colors are the big attraction for the birds and bees. They instinctively and naturally know that behind the façade of all these beautiful colors, delicious, nourishing and necessary bounty lies in wait for them. But now, as a beekeeper, I always suspect that there must be more to it than that.
It can’t just be colors that are the attraction. What about smell or scents? Do plants and their flowers not give off beautiful aromas? What about nutritional benefits, and do the bees really know how to find this when buzzing about, hunting for food? Let’s take a look and see what we can find out and learn about this natural and wonderful alliance between plants and bees. Let’s see what plants are the bees’ perfect take-outs or favorite supermarkets. Let’s see what’s stocked on their shelves.
ASTERS – The lavender-blue flowers of late summer, not to mention a variety of other colors such as pinks, purples and blues, remain perennial favorites for honeybees. These lavender-blue flowers have succulent orange centers for the bees to dive in to.
COMMON YARROW – To dive for, as shopping bees would say. The brightly colored, flattened heads of this flower are littered with minute daisy flowers that are always a delight to bees. Among the many varieties, one favorite has pink flowers that fade almost to white.
PALE PURPLE CONEFLOWER – This is a winter plant par excellence. It is native to the American east coast’s savannahs and grasslands and as a hardy plant, blooms for at least three weeks during the winter. During this time, its flowers feed thousands of bees.
BLACK-EYED SUSAN – This unusually and unfortunately named plant produces flowers at a prodigious rate which, of course, is quite convenient for the bees.
BLUE GIANT HYSSOP – This plant stems from the mint family. It is also a hardy plant, native to the northern regions of the American continent. The big attraction for the bees here, of course, is this plant’s fragrance.
HORSEMINT – This is a perennial plant, ideal for domestic beekeepers. It can produce flowers throughout the summer and part of autumn. It loves the sun and the bees are drawn to its pink and white flowers, over and above its distinctive scent.
PURPLE CONEFLOWER – This is another perennial, famed for both its beauty and resilience.
SUNFLOWERS – The bees love this all-time favorite. And so do I. You should see it in my garden. Unfortunately, I cannot grow too many of them otherwise it would simply throw my garden’s aesthetic and functional balance completely out of kilter. The sunflower attracts the bees in a big way. It also feeds them well. They come in yellow, gold, red and orange. They produce oil-rich seeds which we, as humans, can also enjoy. Hundreds of varieties provide gardeners, beekeepers and the bees with a richness of choice in terms of flower colors, height and size.
This is convenient in the sense that you can make selections for future planting in accordance with your current garden’s size and scheme of species and colors. Little Becka is a magnificently tall sunflower that produces brown and gold flowers. Big Smile is her small brother, and he has the distinctive black center which all bees know too well. I could not help notice the coincidence here. Remarkably, the colors of the sunflower and their fanatical bees are quite similar. I had to ask whether this is beneficial to the bees in terms of the perfect camouflage.
I seem to have only found the mint plants to be prominent in terms of using scent to attract the bees. Not much was said, in fact, nothing at all in terms of taste and nutrition. There is nothing more that we as humans enjoy than the great taste sensations of what we eat. Perhaps because they are, strictly speaking, insects, taste is not a priority for the bees. The world’s master chefs, on the other hand, and would you believe this, do not so much rely on their own taste and sense of smell to produce the great culinary dishes that they are famous for.
When you consider how delicious most varieties of honey are, very much influenced by the flowers they feed on, perhaps bees are culinary masters in their own right.