Why would we want to plant more plants that do not attract bees? Are bees not in danger of extinction? Well, there are many people, including clients of mine, who are allergic to bee stings, and yet want a beautiful landscape to enjoy. We can plan their landscapes to include flowers that are less attractive to bees.
Finding any flowers that do not attract bees has been a challenge however. Before we get to the plants, we need to know what bees are attracted to, and why. I am including all bees in this list, as research is limited by species. Most people are just allergic to honeybee or wasp stings, but bumblebees and even sweat bees can have a nasty sting when provoked.
What colors do bees see and how do we know?
Bees see quite a different range of colors in comparison to humans. We know this because scientists and researchers have studied bees reactions to different sugar-water feeder colors. Studying a bee’s range of vision is helpful in preventing their future downfall. If we know what colors they are most attracted to, then we can plant more flowers that will provide them with nectar and pollen.
Bees can see most colors from orange to ultraviolet (which humans cannot see), but they cannot see infrared or red. This knowledge is especial for this post, though red is not an easy to find color even in plants. Becuase most plants need pollination by insects or animals to produce viable seed, God created them in close association with bees.
How can we use this knowledge of bee’s vision to benefit gardeners? Bees see red and infrared as black. Now, some flowers may use red as an alternation between other colors, almost creating a landing strip light section to draw bees into the heart of the flower. If you see a pattern of red and yellow like on Blanketflower (Gaillardia species), then you know that plant has a pattern to attract bees to the center.
Plants with Red Flowers that Bees are Less Attracted to
As long as wee steer away from flowers with patterns of alternating colors such as red and yellow, we should be able add such flowers to the garden that are less attractive to bees, just by flower color. But what are the best red flowers that do not attract bees?
Perennial Flowers that do not attract bees
- Red lilies – there are several species and cultivars of oriental lilies that have a dark red to bright red color. They make large mounds in the garden over time.
- Yarrow ‘Paprika’ – this is an older cultivar of yarrow which holds a strong red color during bloom time.
- Hummingbird Mint (Agastache) – there are several red flowing species that only attract hummingbirds
- Red Hot Poker – this heat loving perennial is a short bloomer, but the flower shape and red color deter bees
- Cardinal Flower – a native perennial for bog or rain gardens with pure scarlet flowers.
- Maltese Cross – while there are pink variations, most cultivars are red and not attractive to bees
- Chrysanthemums – most mums are double flowered without pollen or nectar, thus no attraction to bees.
- Roses – they may be pretty, but few bees will pollinate newer cultivars like ‘Knockout’, ‘Easy Elegance Series, or Drift Series.
Many other species may have red flowers that are less attractive to bees, but they often have yellow centers that bees may stumble into.
Annual and Tropical Flowers that do not attract bees
- Petunia – red varieties are not attractive to bees, though I have seen bumblebees checking out other colors
- Celosia – both the flower structure and the red color are abhorrent to bees
- Cardinal Vine – this red flower is a favorite of hummingbirds, but bees stay away
- Marigolds – another double flower plant that is difficult for bees to penetrate
Can we use a bee’s sense of smell to deter them from the garden?
Now, knowing what we know about a bee’s vision, what can we learn about their olfactory sense? This means their sense of smell. Bees are very good at noticing the slightest whiff of scent on the breeze, and can determine easily if it is something that they want to pollinate. One thing to remember, is that bees do not pollinate on purpose or because we want them to. They pollinate on accident, trying to get nectar or pollen to take back to their brood.
Becuase their sense of smell is so strong, there are a number of plants that may deter bees with their fragrance. Highly aromatic plants may be the thing to add to the garden, especially in sensitive areas, such as patios or pools, where a lot activity goes on. What are some of the aromatic plants that do not attract bees, but deter them?
The following flowers can be added to the garden to repel bees (and wasps!)
- Basil – this aromatic herb is great for pasta night, as well as repelling bees
- Geranium – several scented cultivars repel not only bees, but mosquitoes and wasps as well
- Marigolds – bees not only do not pollinate these annuals, but are also repelled by them
- Artemesia – wormwood or other members of this genus are very aromatic, and have both scented leaves and flowers that repel insects
There may be other strongly aromatic plants that repel bees, but they are not yet known. Try some in your garden to see how they work.
Other ways that may reduce the number of bee populations in your garden
While planting flowers to repel or keep bees at bay is the most desirable thing for a gardener to do, there are some cultural practices that can prevent bees from nesting in the landscape. These practices may also reduce bird nesting potential, but that is always a downside when trying to prevent species from being in the landscape.
- Remove brush piles – many cavity nesting bees may use hollow sticks in brush piles.
- Paint wood porches – carpenter bees like to nest in wood that has been unpainted.
- Mulch the garden – many bees and wasps nest in the ground, and prefer bare ground under plants. Apply mulch or other ground coverings to prevent these nests.
What not to do to keep bees at bay
I would NEVER recommend applying pesticides to remove bees from the garden or landscape. Bees are a very important part of the ecosystem and if the above practices cannot change their presence in the garden, then you must learn to live with them.
While bees are an important part of the ecosystem, and most gardeners try to attract them, some individuals are highly allergic to any and all bee stings. Therefore, it may be necessary to apply preventative cultural practices or plantings to prevent bees from being overly active in the garden.