Copyright: Pollinator Partnership; Used with permission.
Beekeepers are often interested in improving the foraging opportunities near their hives. One excellent way to do that is to plant flowering trees and shrubs.
Of course, this isn’t the fastest way, but that is balanced out by the ease of getting it done and the many decades, if not centuries, of benefit for your bees and other pollinators.
Tree planting requires the disruption of a relatively small footprint among the existing plants and once well-established, trees will do the heavy lifting to maintain their own dominance on the site. Your efforts will be confined to researching and choosing the best ones for your site, then getting them off to a good start and protecting a small area around their base until they are up and above ground-level menaces
Trees also offer another significant benefit: compared to ground level plantations, when they are in bloom, they generally offer a highly concentrated number of flowers in a small area, increasing the bees’ foraging efficiency.
Another way that beekeepers can use this concentrated flowering to good effect is to choose trees that bloom during the local periods of naturally low nectar and pollen production. In other words, rely on the existing plant mix for the traditional flows, but plant additional species, either for extra-early, or late-flowering periods or during any mid-season slow down.
Trees planted near a bee yard also offer extra navigational assistance to returning foragers compared to a flat lawn or fields. They help the bees bring their hard-won cargo safely back home to their own hive.
In all but the warmest parts of the country, it’s still too early to plant trees, so there’s time to do the necessary research to find the best trees for your site and to locate these sometimes uncommon varieties.
The first step is to gather information about your site. You can find your horticultural zone at this website. These zones are based on minimum winter temperatures and it’s best not to try to “cheat” (at least, not by much!) by choosing plants from much warmer areas than your own. While the trees might survive, they may not flower in colder areas. And, of course, flowering is the whole point of this project.
The next step is to consider the soil on your site. You can get very detailed soil information at this link. Your local Cooperative Extension or Soil Conservation Service will help you tease out the basic soil information you need for choosing trees.
The climate zone and the soil are two things which you cannot change, so getting this information is the essential first step.
With the details about your site worked out, you can move on to thinking about what to plant.
Not all trees are equally valuable to honey bees, so it’s important to choose carefully. Start by looking for information online at sites such as the Pollinator Partnership. This organization offers a very useful (and free) regional planting guide for pollinators, including bees. Two older, but still valuable, books about honey plants are both available online in .pdf format: Frank C. Pellet’s American Honey Plants (1920) and John H. Lovell’s Honey Plants of North America (1926). Two modern books with reliable information about plants for bees are Peter Lindtner’s Garden Plants for Honey Bees and the encyclopedic book, The Hive and the Honey Bee (Joe Graham, Ed.) An excellent book on bee-plants in the mid-central part of the US is, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys by Shannon Trimboli. You may find that there are so many trees and shrubs to consider – almost too many – that the hardest job is winnowing down the list of possible choices. Look in the USDA plant database for more information about the range, and eventual size of any tree that catches your attention.
Next, think about at which point during the season that you want to add nectar or pollen. Do you want early pollen to stimulate brood, or late season nectar to replace harvested honey, or if not a surplus of nectar, then at least a steady maintenance flow during a summer dearth? Use the blooming period dates to determine when the tree will be productive. There’s a tree for every use, and every season.
There will likely be too many enticing options, so it’s a good idea to think of tree planting as a long-term project and plant a few every year to spread out the work. This will make it less of a chore and easier to fit into a busy life.
With a few trees chosen, the next step is to find them. Tree are for sale everywhere, but the trees and shrubs you have decided to plant may not be. An excellent mail order source of woody plants which are especially valuable for honey bees is the Rock Bridge Nursery in Tennessee. Two other good nurseries which sell a few of the more unusual trees for honey bees are Oikos Tree Crops Nursery and Cold Stream Farm Nursery, though the last two are not strictly bee-tree specialists. In addition, many states have state tree nurseries that offer some trees and shrubs that may be useful for bees, though often only in bundles of very young trees of 10-50 of the same species. To find these state nurseries, search on Google. This link goes to the New York State tree nursery; most other states have similar agencies.
But, wait! Before you place the order, you need to think again about your site: where will you plant these trees? With notes about the eventual size of the tree in your pocket, go out and decide where to plant it, and whether it will fit on your site. Use a tape measure to mark off on the ground the diameter of its expected spread. Now look up, will it be under power lines, or too close to a building, or block an important view? It’s a shame to spend the money, and the time, growing a tree which will only be crudely hacked off when it outgrows its space. The time to work that out is before you plant, by moving the location, or going back and selecting a different a tree that will stay smaller.
Keep in mind, too, that the root area the tree may occupy will be as large as the branches overhead. Don’t let it imperil your septic tank or grow out over buried utilities or make cracks in your patio. If you need to know about buried gas, electric, or water lines call 811 for the free underground utility locating service.
Ask your supplier to send you planting instructions for your trees. Plant your trees as soon as they arrive, even if the weather is miserably cold or rainy. (Unpleasant for you, maybe, but very comfortable for the tree.) The axiom in the nursery trade is that you don’t want to put a $10 tree in a $5 dollar hole, so take the trouble to make the planting hole large enough and back fill it exactly as described by the nursery. Even if it’s pouring rain, water the tree in anyway. This will help get your new tree off to the best start. After the tree is in the ground, lay down a 3-foot wide circle of weed barrier cloth and cover it with mulch. Add a sturdy stake and a wire cage at least 8” in diameter and at least two feet taller than the tree. Make the cage from ½” mesh hardware cloth. It will surround the trunk to protect it from gnawing critters, lawn mower blades, and deer browsing. In a few years, you may need to replace the wire cage with a larger, and taller one - as the tree grows up. Once it’s beyond the reach of browsing deer, you can remove it; by then the bark is also likely to be unappealing to mice. Cages aren’t very attractive, but they are essential to protect the tree while it’s small and vulnerable. Check every year to make sure that neither the weed barrier cloth on the ground, nor the wire cage are touching the trunk of the tree and restricting its growth. During the first year, you should plan on watering the tree every week. In the second year, you may only have to water during especially dry periods. And after that, if you have chosen carefully for your climate and soil, no watering will be necessary.
It may take a few years, or even longer, for your trees to start to feed your bees. In a perfect world, dogs would live twice as long and trees grow to maturity in half the time. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of seeing trees that you planted as saplings become tall, permanent parts of the landscape. If you have selected well, the trees may outlive you and be a gift to honey bees and pollinators long afterwards. That’s a wonderful legacy to leave.