Fall-blooming Nectar and Pollen Producing Plants for Bees
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Marion Willemsen
Posted on: January 21, 2008

I actually asked this very same question last year and tried growing melilot but it didn’t do very well. The problem was simply that I had no time left over to give much attention to this "crop". That will probably not change this year either. I tried sunflower seeds and planted a 20 kg bag of them but the animals ate most of those and the ones that did grow, the bees didn’t visit with as much exuberance as I had hoped.

So I am going to ask the question differently: What can I plant in about a 1/4 acre that requires no attention, that is a HIGH nectar/pollen producer in the FALL? Because winter comes so quickly up here, I would like to offer the bees something late in the season -- we’ve got lots of golden rod and asters (asters are actually a bit risky because their nectar has a high moisture content and sometimes the honey doesn’t have a chance to cure completely before it gets too cold = dysentry for the bees.) So I’m stumped! What can you suggest? Can I plant two rounds of alfalfa one for spring and one for fall? How about mustard? Does it have lots of nectar/pollen? I saw a field of something yellow blooming below Bobcaygeon in October (perfect time!) but have no idea what it was...

There are some fall blooming bee plants listed on our InfoSheet on herbal beekeeping:

http://www.richters.com/show.cgi?page=InfoSheets/d9001.html

Because our summers and autumns are getting longer, probably some of the herbs listed as blooming in September will still be in flower in October. According to the InfoSheet you could try hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) and joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), both of which should be hardy in your area (Kinmount, ON) and should be in bloom in September and possibly October. These herbs are not suitable for direct seeding: they need to be sown in flats or plug trays and then planted. This quite different from melilot, clover and alfalfa which can be direct seeded using conventional field seeding techniques. Because we are not beekeepers we cannot say for sure that these herbs will yield pollen and nectar of the quality you are looking for.

You asked for something that requires no attention. Anything that is planted will require attention at some stage. Joe-pye weed is a native plant and when it grows in the wild it of course requires no human attention to thrive; but a planted field joe-pye weed requires effort: to seed, transplant, water, and otherwise nurture the plants to maturity. Once they are mature you can let up on the weeding and let other wild plants move into the stand, and the field should last 3-5 years that way, and probably you will find that the patch requires no attention. The same is true for hyssop.

You asked about alfalfa and mustard. I have two concerns: both are daylength sensitive which means that flowering depends to some degree on the length of the day. If you plant late in the season hoping to get a fall flush of flowers you may be disappointed. The other issue is that summer plantings will likely need irrigation to ensure good germination -- irrigation may or may not be a problem for you.

Bees do forage on mustard and according to the USDA Agriculture Research Service mustard is an excellent source of pollen and nectar:

http://gears.tucson.ars.ag.gov/book/chap9/mustard.html

The days to flower for brown and white mustard is about 55-60 days from seeding, so you could try a late seeding to get flowering to occur in the fall, say July 1-15. But because of the daylength sensitivity I am not sure that you will get good flowering -- it’s something that you have to try out. Normally mustard is sown in spring for summer flowering (at maximum daylength), followed by seed set and harvest -- so you would be trying something unconventional.

With alfalfa it may be possible to delay flowering by cutting the crop in summer before the onset of flowering. This way you may be able to plant alfalfa at the usual time in spring (when soil moisture is higher and irrigation is not required). But, again, I am not sure if this will result in flowering during the fall months as you are hoping for. Again, you must experiment.

I am sorry, I don’t know what it was you saw blooming in Bobcaygeon last October.

The USDA’s Carl Haydon Bee Research Center may be able to provide suggestions. They have an "Ask The Expert" service you could try:

http://www.ars.usda.gov/contactus/contactus.htm

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