Most people grow herbs for their fabulous flavours and health benefits. Usually it's the fresh green leaves that are used to transform our menus into exciting flavour experiences, or valuable healing potions. But did you know that most herbs flower too? And these flowers are particularly attractive to our precious pollinators.
Jean Vernon (aka Jeanie Bee) gives insight into her favourite herbs for bees in this blog article. Jean is a regular at Jekka’s Open Days where she gives guided bee walks. During these walks you get to meet some of our precious pollinators, from bumblebees to solitary bees, hoverflies and more. Coupons for our open days are available here.
Leaf-cutter Bee on Borage
Healing powers of herbs
Bees visit flowers to collect protein rich pollen to feed their young and also to feed on the energy rich nectar. The healing powers of plant essences are the basis of many herbal medicines including the Bach Flower remedies. Man has harnessed the powers of herbs for millennia to heal, improve and sustain health, but did you know that bees have been shown to do the same?
Research by Dartmouth College showed parasitised bees self-medicating in the wild. Bumblebees have been shown to seek out herb plants, like the all-healing thyme to harness their medicinal properties to self-medicate against a fungal infection.
Let your herbs flower
If you grow herbs, especially some of the perennial herbs like thyme, Chives, Lovage, Mint, Lemon Balm and Fennel, leave a few stems to flower. You can harvest your herbs from the other stems but provide vital forage for your pollinator populations in this way. Similarly some of the shrubby herbs like Rosemary, Sage and Lemon Verbena, also have bee friendly flowers. You don’t have to let every stem flower, but leave a few across the plant so that you get a good mix of leaves and flowers for both you and the pollinators
And don’t forget the herbs that we grow for the flowers, like Borage, Lavender and Bergamot. These nectar rich flowers are magnet for summer feeding pollinators.
Check out Jekka's Birds and Bees Seeds Collection
Top 7 Herbs for Bees
Most garden herbs are also important forage plants for bees, but choosing the best ones is personal. The best thing to do is choose the herbs that you love to grow and let them flower. But if you need some ideas, or are new to growing herbs, here are my top 7 herbs for bees:
- Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
- Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
- Thyme (Thymus)
- Mint (Mentha)
- Sage (Salvia)
- Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
- Agastache (Agastache)
Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
If you only grow one plant just for the bees make it Viper's Bugloss. It’s native, hardy and has fabulous rich blue flowers. It is also very easy to grow from seed. What’s not to like??
The reason that it’s at the top of my list is because the flowers replenish their nectaries regularly, every ten minutes or so. Which makes it the equivalent of your bottomless coffee deal from your favourite coffee shop. It’s like an all you can eat buffet for bees (and other pollinators) and coupled with the many flowers, an established clump will be buzzing all summer as your pollinator pals feed, feed and feed. It’s a self-seeder too so once you’ve got it growing it will seed itself around the garden. The long, but open flowers are accessible by many pollinators but especially those with longer tongues.
Buy Viper's Bugloss seeds from Jekka’s
Bumble Bee on Viper’s Bugloss
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
This is one of my favourite herbs. First of all it is evergreen, keeping its richly fragrant leaves through the depths of winter. This means there are always Rosemary leaves to add to your winter menus, make herbal infusions and lift your spirits on the darkest days with its wonderful uplifting fragrance. Rosemary is a really good pollinator plant. In a sheltered spot rosemary plants can flower through late winter and into early spring, provide vital forage for pollinators out of season.
Want to know more? Read Jekka’s Guide to Rosemary
For all the reasons mentioned above and more. Thyme is fabulous herb that comes in such a huge diversity of flavours, aroma and colours. There is bound to be one of more that you choose to grow in your garden. Generally it’s a low growing, cushioning herb that has fragrant leaves and pretty pale pink, mauve or white flowers. It’s ideal for a sunny planter, to top a wall or to grow between the paving slabs. To ensure your plants are safe for pollinators ensure they are grown both sustainably and following organic principals, like we do at Jekka’s.
Want to know more? Read Jekka’s Guide to Thyme.
Bumble Bee on Thyme (c. Martin Mulchinock)
One of the easiest plants to grow in a pot for pollinators is garden Mint. It is well suited to container growing because Mint plants spread by making rhizomes that grow sideways from the plants creating the spreading pattern that it is so well known for. Some gardeners regard Mint as a bit of a thug if planted into a border. You could look at it like that, but I prefer to think of it as a very prolific and successful filler in the border, that will not only generate masses and masses of herbal infusion material, but will also produce spires of soft pink and mauve flowers that are rich in nectar for our garden pollinators.
There are dozens of mints you could choose to grow; Jekka has a fabulous collection in her Herbetum. If a good mint herbal infusion is your quest you can’t go wrong with Moroccan or Spanish mint, seek them out, or find a mint that you like the smell and taste of and start a collection.
Want to know more? Read Jekka’s Guide to Mint.
You might be surprised that the herbal Sage plants also flower. Many growers will pinch out the flower spikes to generate more of the delicious leaves, but I like to let my Sage plants bloom. The blossoms are the softest mauve and rich in nectar.
Sage is a fantastic culinary herb with fragrant leaves and of course has many close relatives that are wonderful ornamental plants (the salvias). Let the stems flower for pollinator food and then cut off the spent flower heads to tidy the plant and encourage new shoots and leaves.
Red-tailed Bumble Bee on Sage
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
If you’ve just got a small pot to plant up, choose to grow garden Chives. They are easy to grow, come back year after year and flower with attractive mauve clusters of flowers in early summer. And of course you can snip the leaves to add some flavour and colour to your sandwiches and salads.
They are great for growing in a pot and a good way to start growing a few ingredients for your menus.
Bumble Bee on Chives
Sometimes called giant hyssop and it’s a real winner with pollinators. Look out for plants at the Jekka’s or grow it from seed if you are seed sower. At Jekka’s we grow Golden Agache, Korean Mint and Anise Hyssop. Agastache is a perennial, so once planted and established it’s there pretty much for good (and if you are lucky it will self-seed too). It’s a great garden plant with spikes of smoky purple flowers all summer and it’s even got slightly aromatic foliage too that you can use to make a herbal infusion. But best of all Agastache are pretty resistant to garden pests and a powerful magnet for butterflies and especially carder bees.
Bumble Bee on Agastache
Want to know more?
Join Jean Vernon (aka Jeanie Bee) at Jekka’s Open Days where we are delighted to have Jean giving guided bee walks. You will get to meet some of our precious pollinators, from bumblebees to solitary bees, hoverflies and more. Coupons for our open days are available 4 - 6 weeks ahead of the date and are available here.
At Jekka's we have over 140 different varieties of herb seeds available to buy online. Many of our seeds are collected from Jekka's Herbetum. For pollinating herbs, simply filter Jekkapedia by the characteristic “Pollinator” to see the herbs Jekka recommends. Alternatively, browse our bee friendly seed collections which includes, Jekka's Native Herb Seed Collection, Jekka's Birds & Bees Seed Collection and Jekka's Biodiversity Seed Collection.
Herb plants are available and you can organise a collection from our herb farm in South Gloucestershire or at one of our Open Days or Herb Experiences (see our events calendar). Please see our 'Looking Good List' for availability and use our webform or email your list directly to us (firstname.lastname@example.org). We no longer offer a general mail order service for our plants but we do offer a limited selection of Jekka's Culinary Herb Boxes.
For advice on growing and maintaining herbs, check out ‘Jekka’s Seasonal Tips’ blog series, which includes what to do in your herb garden in early spring, late spring, summer and autumn & winter. Together they form the basis of Jekka’s guide on how to grow herbs.
About the Author
Jean Vernon is an award-winning writer and author of The Secret Lives of Garden Bees. She is on a mission to unravel, demystify and explain the intricate balance of nature and to introduce everyone to the familiar and unfamiliar bees and other pollinators that live in our gardens.
Her new book Attracting Garden Pollinators is available to buy online.