By: Russell Stafford
Are you looking to give your local bees a much-needed boost? Then why not give them a tree! Plant any of the trees described below in fall or spring, and they’ll provide a banquet of nectar- and pollen-rich blooms that will have your neighborhood honeybees, bumblebees, and other hymenopterans buzzing with appreciation. Their attractive foliage and flowers (and other features) will also win plaudits from neighboring humans. Most trees flower for only 2 or 3 weeks, so you’ll need several different species for a spring-to-fall bee banquet.
Large Trees for Bees
A native of swamps and forests throughout much of North America, red maple (Acer rubrum, 60-90′) is a veritable bee oasis in late March and early April, when little else is in bloom. The tight clusters of small, maroon flowers are a stirring sight in the early-spring landscape, especially when displayed against a deep blue sky. Red maple is also one of the first trees to have foliage color in fall, its three- to five-lobed leaves turning yellow or red as early as mid-September. Numerous cultivars in a wide range of shapes, sizes, fall coloration, and climatic preferences are available from nurseries. Although this tough, adaptable tree has few requirements, it is at its best in full sun.
A showy-flowered member of the pea family, yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea, 30-50′) is breathtaking in late spring when it drapes itself with dangling chains of fragrant white blooms. Its decorative compound leaves turn a striking butter-yellow in fall, and its smooth, gray, beech-like bark is handsome year-round. This Mid-Atlantic to Midwest native takes a few years to get going in the garden, eventually forming a large- to medium-sized, low-forking specimen. Varieties with pale pink flowers are sometimes offered by specialty nurseries. Yellowwood prefers well-drained soil and full sun, and is hardy from USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 9.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum, 20-50′) is renowned in its native Southeast United States for the honey that derives from its early-summer blooms. The frothy, cascading clusters of dainty white flowers are one of the highlights of the midseason garden. Factor in its handsome, glossy leaves, brilliant fall color, scaly gray bark, and conspicuous winter seed capsules, and you’ve got one of the best four-season small trees for USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9. Full sun and moist, humus-rich, acid soil suit it best.
Late spring and early summer welcome the bee-thronged, sweet-scented white flowers of the many cultivated species of linden. European natives including littleleaf linden (Tilia tomentosa, 65-115′) and its hybrid Crimean linden (Tilia x euchlora, 40-60′) are the most commonly planted of the tribe, but many others make excellent garden subjects, including Japanese linden (Tilia japonica, 50-65′) and the shorter Kyushu linden (Tilia kiusiana, 20-30′). The flowers of silver linden (Tilia tomentosa) are perhaps too pollinator-friendly, exuding an intoxicating nectar that literally sends bees into a drunken feeding frenzy, followed by a narcotic stupor. All lindens are valued for their attractive, toothed, heart-shaped leaves, although aphids can sometimes be a problem producing dripping honeydew and attracting ants. The eastern U.S. native basswood (Tilia americana, 60-120′) is suitable for spacious, naturalistic landscapes. Most Tilia are considerably hardy and suitable to temperate landscapes in the US.
Small Trees for Bees
The fleecy white flowers of serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis, 15-40′), a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), decorate woodland edges of eastern North America from early to mid-spring. Tasty blue-black fruits follow in early summer, but they and the foliage are often marred by pests and diseases. Consequently, this small, slight, gray-barked tree is best used in naturalistic, peripheral plantings, rather than as a landscape focal point. Several similar Amelanchier species occur in the wild and in cultivation, these and many other rose family members have bee-loved flowers. All serviceberries are happiest in humus-rich soil and full to partial sun in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8.
Redbud (Cercis canadensis, 20-30′) opens its magenta, pea-flowers in mid-spring, just as flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is coming into bloom. The broad, heart-shaped leaves unfurl soon thereafter. A small, often multi-stemmed tree from clearings and margins of central and eastern North America, it takes readily to sunny or lightly shaded gardens in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 9. Gardeners in the warmer parts of redbud’s hardiness range can opt for the handsome variety texensis, notable for its glossy, leathery, dark-green foliage. Other options include weeping, variegated, white-flowered, pink-flowered, purple-leaved, and yellow-leaved varieties.
Seven Son Tree
Arresting, bee-luring sprays of fragrant white flowers are also borne by another late-blooming East Asian native, seven son tree (Heptacodium miconioides, 15-20′). As the flower petals fade in late summer, the sepals expand and turn deep wine-red, continuing the show into late summer and early fall. In winter, the shredding, silver-gray bark takes center stage. This small multi-stemmed tree thrives in sun and any decent soil in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 9. This tree has a less formal habit and may appreciate some pruning and shaping if it is to be grown in a prominent place in the landscape.
Bee Bee Tree
Bee bee tree (Tetradium daniellii, 25-30′) earns its common name by covering itself with masses of fragrant white flowers that are abuzz with bees when they open in midsummer. They give rise to showy clusters of shiny black fruits that ripen in late summer and persist into fall. The lush, lustrous, compound leaves are remarkably pest- and disease-free. This East Asian native grows rapidly into a low-branched, gray-barked tree that would add beauty to any garden. It does well in full sun and most soil types in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9.
Whichever bee tree you choose for your landscape, you’ll probably have better luck if you start with a relatively small, container-grown plant. Larger, balled and burlapped trees may look more impressive initially, but they’re slower to establish and more susceptible to pests and diseases. Dig the planting hole to the same depth as the root ball (or shallower in heavy clay soil), and three (or more) times as wide. Spread a layer of Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost in a wide circle around the newly planted tree, top with 2 to 3 inches of bark mulch, and water well, repeating when necessary (one or two times a week). Your new tree – and your neighborhood bees – will thank you.
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