While June’s arrival signals the start of summer and all the delightful offerings we dream of in cold, dreary February, it also signals the dreaded end of the nectar flow here in Maryland. It’s been an interesting flow, one with heavy, prolonged rains, but also one with nectar stores now needing to be cured. Our bees will become more protective of their treasures, knowing before we that the primary nectar sources have been exhausted.
Fortunately, the myriad of planting we do with our honey bees in mind can offer food options this time of year. In truth, I enjoy this time of the beekeeping year because I can watch my girls up close as they visit my plant offerings. When they foraged black locust and tulip poplars, they were out of sight but for the thrilling frenzy upon their return to the hives with their rich, nectar booty.
For the upcoming summer months, I’ll highlight a few summer favorites of my honey bees. Maybe you have these in your landscapes and enjoy watching the business they drum up too. If not, perhaps they’re worth some consideration.
June Spotlight: holly bushes, also known as Ilex, of which there are hundreds of species
I grow lots of holly bushes of differing varieties which leads to staggering bloom times. My favorite by far is the winterberry (Ilex verticillata) that are just now pushing out buds, whereas my American holly bushes (Ilex opaca) have already bloomed and set berries.
Winterberry bushes provide abundant nectar and pollen in the summer months per the fact sheet USDA Native Plants for Summer and Fall Honey Bee Forage. I know it to be the case because my girls frequent these bushes along with other pollinators in June when the primary flow has left them searching for other food sources.
Winterberry blooms are small and not particularly noteworthy until you get close, pause and watch. It’s then that you can marvel at the various pollinators eating from the little, green and white blossoms and recognize the worth of this plant in its wildlife nutritional value.
While my American holly bushes put out lots of berries, it’s the winterberry bushes that the birds strip first, their big, bright red berries a beautiful sight in the dreary winter months. They do require male plants to produce berries. I grow ‘Winter Red’ winterberry bushes with an aptly named male, the ‘Southern Gentleman’, to allow for berries. The leaves are a lovely, bright green and not as sharp or stiff as the American holly leaves. Since they are deciduous, winterberry leaves turn to a dark red/ purple before falling in autumn, not before leaving behind their signature large, red berries that linger into the winter months, hence their name.
Inkberry bushes (Ilex glabra) are also in the Ilex family and listed as a good summer nectar source for honey bees in our area. These bushes are also easy to grow and produce black berries for wildlife in the winter. Inkberry doesn’t grow quite as tall as winterberry and has the added bonus of retaining leaves over the winter. Honey bees are known to flock to inkberry so this makes for another good perennial addition to your landscape with blooms outside of the primary nectar flow.
Once established, hollies require little work other than trimming when they need some shape if that’s your preference. The joys of growing hollies extend beyond watching our honey bees feast from their food offerings to recognizing native bees, some so small you almost overlook them, to catching glimpses of hungry birds eating their nutritious red berries in winter when other food sources become scarce, to simply admiring their beauty in our landscapes.
Stay tuned for the July spotlight on milkweed
Because life is fueled by the energy captured from the sun by plants, it will be the plants that we use in our gardens that determine what nature will be like 10, 20, and 50 years from now.
– Doug Tallamy