Bee and butterfly plants

Plants are, without a doubt, the most important part of any bee and butterfly garden. The plants largely determine which animals you will attract, and in what quantity. Suitable plants for bee and butterfly gardens produce nectar and / or pollen in large quantities and so provide food for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Not all plants are the same, and the size of the flower says nothing about the amount of food the plant offers. Many plants for sale today have been crossbred for looks and not for nectar or pollen production. Many flowers have been changed so much that they no longer produce food at all or pollinators are no longer able to reach the food. Many native plant species evolved over millions of years to attract these animals and are therefore excellent food plants. The Hydrangea for example produces virtually no food despite having distinctive, large flowers. Comfrey (Symphytum) in contrast is less noticeable but produces lots of food to bees. Some plants also produce a lot of pollen, but hardly any nectar. This means they are interesting for bees, but not for butterflies. Bees will also not be able to survive on just these plants alone.


Would you like to know which plants now are great for bees and / or butterflies? Then click the button [Perennials], [Annual & biennial plants], [Bulbs], [Shrubs] or [trees] above and find extensive lists of suitable plants.


What do bees and butterflies need?

All bees require both pollen and nectar. Thus, it is important to offer both in an area. Also, pollen from one plant will be different from other plants, with different proteins and vitamins. To ensure that bees obtain all the nutrients they need, it is important to offer a wide variety of plants. Bumblebees, honey bees, solitary bees and butterflies often visit the same plants. However, they also specialize in specific plants where one group might show a lot of interest in a plant species while the others show no interest at all. For example, the shape of the flower can make it impossible for one, but rather easy for another to reach the nectar. The bumblebee can often throw its weight into the battle to push its way deeper into a flower, a butterfly has a long and nimble tongue to reach into narrow and long flowers that bees might not be able to drink from. A greater diversity of plants, therefore also supplies food to a greater variety of pollinators, and should be encouraged as much as possible. It is also important to have plants flowering throughout the year. As long as the animals are awake, they will have to eat, and during warm winters many bees can still wake up. If this happens and there is no food, they can starve. So make sure that there is always some food available and choose plants that flower during many different months.


A bumblebee drinking from a Giant Onion (Allium giganteum).


As stated before, many plants are alluring for both bees and butterflies alike. An example of such plants are the thistles. This can be the common thistle we commonly see growing in fields such as Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense). There are also species that look great in a more ornamental garden such as the globe-thistle (Echinops) or cardoon (Cynara cardunculus). Blue giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is also a great choice for an ornamental garden. It won’t just attract many bees and butterflies, but also smells great. Other possible choices are wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), marjoram (Origanum), Crocus species, onion species (Allium), bistort (Bistorta officinalis), clover species (Trifolium) and Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum).   

Plants for honeybees

Seed mixes can provide an enormous boost for honeybees. A seed mix of blue tansy (Phacelia tanacetifolia), oilseed rape (Brassica napus), Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is great to provide a large amount of food to honeybees and looks nice in summer. These mixes do mostly provide food just in summer, remember that food is also needed during the rest of the year. In spring plants as snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) and Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) are great. For summer common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), thistle (Carduus) species such as eryngo (Eryngium campestre), mint (Mentha) or thyme (Thymus) are good. And in the fall Campanula species such as nettle-leaved bellflower (Campanula trachelium) or peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), European goldenrod (Solidago virgaurea) or autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) provide good amounts of food.

Plants for bumblebees

With their large bodies, bumblebees are able to push some flowers open that other bees are commonly not able to drink from. Examples of great plants for bumblebees are Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), Allium species, common hollyhock (Alcea rosea), Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale), and Downy-rose (Rosa rugosa). Bumblebees also share a large amount of plants with honeybees.


Plants for solitary bees

Many species of solitary bees have specific relationships with native plants that live in the same habitat. When these native plants are not around, these bees will not be able to survive. If you want to help solitary bees, it’s important to include these native plants in your garden. Many solitary bees are also not able to fly too far from their nest. It is therefore also important to plant these flowers close to their nesting site, or create a place where they can nest. To make things easier, a list of wild bees is placed below showing what plants they are known to commonly visit. These are not the only plants they visit however, many solitary bees do visit a wide variety of plant species.

Plants for butterflies

Butterflies drink nectar, but do not eat pollen. This means that even though they do share a lot of plants for food with bees, they do certainly also go for many other plant species as well. Native plants they commonly visit are, amongst others, marjoram (Origanum), Hemp Agrimony (Eupatorium cannabinum), Common Bistort (Persicaria bistorta), Red campion (Silene dioica), Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), Brown knapweed (Centaurea jacea), Musk-mallow (Malva moschata), Cuckoo-flower (Cardamine pratensis), Heather (Calluna vulgaris), Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) and White Clover (Trifolium repens).


Some exotic species also commonly visited are the New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), butterfly bush (Buddleja), purpletop vervain (Verbena bonariensis), eastern purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), lavender (Lavandula), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and mint (Mentha).


All information provided is meant for the Netherlands, northwestern Europe. Habitats in other locations may be very different and the information provided here might not be useful for locations outside of northwestern Europe.


The caterpillars are much less flexible in what they eat. Many only eating from one or a couple of species of plants. These plants are certainly needed for the butterfly to survive in an area. It will certainly help butterflies to include such plants in your garden. Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) is one of the most important plants for butterflies as many species use this as food for their caterpillars. Letting these grow in a corner or pot will certainly help butterflies.

Here is a list of host plants for caterpillars of butterfies.

Some common plants of the northwestern Europe area, that are known to be visited by a large variety of solitary bees, are creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense), creeping yellowcress (Rorippa sylvestris), goat willow (Salix caprea), rough chervil (Chaerophyllum temulum), hawkweed oxtongue (Picris hieracioides), cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), common bird's-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), catsear (Hypochaeris radicata), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), red bryony (Bryonia dioica), ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea), Rapeseed (Brassica napus), common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), white clover (Trifolium repens), blue bonnets (Jasione montana) and ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria).


Other plants that are known to attract solitary bees that are not all native but are good fits for ornamental gardens are common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), showy stonecrop (Sedum spectabile), redcurrant (Ribes rubrum), creeping bellflower (Campanula rapunculoides), Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis), devil's-bit (Succisa pratensis), giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia), common broom (Cytisus scoparius), common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), golden marguerite (Cota tinctoria), lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), garden loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris), common fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica), dog-rose (Rosa canina), clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata), brown knapweed (Centaurea jacea), gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa), peach-leaved bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), rampion bellflower (Campanula rapunculus), nettle-leaved bellflower (Campanula trachelium), Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare), blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), field maple (Acer campestre), Frangula alnus (Rhamnus frangula), common heather (Calluna vulgaris), midland hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata), Bird in a bush (Corydalis solida), Common chicory (Cichorium intybus) and wild cherry (Prunus avium).

Here is a list of bee species and the plants they are known to visit.


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