By Helen Yoest, with this author’s note: For my native advocate friends, this post is specific for plants’ nectar and pollen value to the introduced European honey bee. Most of their best pollen and nectar plants are native to countries where these bees are native. 

What do you value in a flower? The scent, the size, the color? What would you consider insignificant? Is there really such a thing? I’m standing on a stump to say, there is no such thing as the term, insignificant flower; well maybe for horticulturist, but not for us naturalists!

I clearly remember hearing the phrase, some 15 years ago from a breeder at NC State University. Oh, it’s a common term, but I guess I was late to the party. The term never set well with me. Insignificant how? I finally concluded it wasn’t showy or smelly or stunning in some way.

Let’s work together to evolve the term, Insignificant Flower.

Are you familiar with the research Dr. Peter Lindtner conducted on the amount of nectar and pollen the European honey bee gathered from specific plants?

Garden Plants for Honey Bees is an index of a study Peter Lindtner performed at Longwood Gardens, in Kennett Square, PA. In short, Dr. Lindtner measured the amount of pollen and nectar that honey bees collected while foraging. Lindtner and his team collected the bees from specific plants, measuring the food collected with an electron microscope. Dr. Lindtner then ranked the pollen and nectar values from each flower.

Nature made it easy for this research. Did you know that honey bees forage in flower sweeps, each trip visiting one flower type? This is one of the reasons it’s beneficial to design floral beds for wildlife gardens in drifts of a single species, in blocks of three- to four-feet square, but that’s for another post.

In reading this book, I quickly saw its importance, but first I need to mention a few caveats. None of these caveats take away from the book. You just need to adjust from the Longwood plants and season to your own, if applicable.

Western honey bee or European honey bee – Apis mellifera – carrying pollen

The book is indexed by scientific name only, not common name. Unless you’re fluent in botanical Latin you’ll need to recognize the plants by the pictures, or make a quick Google search.

The pollen and nectar study was by month. This makes sense if you are trying to provide plants to cover most of the year. For the Raleigh area, where I live, we need to adjust for about two weeks. If it’s blooming in Kennett Square in early March, we are likely to see it in mid-February.

The ranking is 0 to 5, yet these aren’t evenly distributed. For example,  there is only one plant ranked zero for pollen and zero for nectar, and just one plant that ranked five for both. I often muse that the scale should have been logarithmic since a 2 or 3 ranking is a very worthy plant.

By the way, Forsythia is ranked zero for both pollen and nectar, and the Bee Bee tree, also known as Korean evodia (Evodia daniellii syn. Tetradium daniellii) is ranked five for both, but it’s very invasive for us. We don’t want this tree in our garden at home.

Other useful information provided in the book, in addition to the months flowering, is about the plants themselves—trees and shrubs, evergreen or deciduous, as well as annuals or perennials.

Keep in mind, just as the European honey bee isn’t native to the US, neither are the vast majority of the highest ranking pollen and nectar plants for the honey bee.

For a complete listing of Dr. Lindtner’s findings, click here and then click on the right-hand side for the resource guide on bees.

So instead of calling a flower insignificant as we do the boxwood, Buxus spp., perhaps we call it pollinator-friendly, since it was found to be a 2 and 2 in Lindtner’s research. Very worthy indeed to the honey bee.

Here are three examples of insignificant flowers that have significant nectar and pollen sources for the European honey bee.

Acer saccharum, sugar maple, identified in Lindtner’s research as a 5 for pollen and 2 for nectar. These are some impressive numbers!

Buxus sempervirens, English boxwood, with its insignificant flower, ranked 2 and 2 for pollen and nectar, respectively. If you are trying to provide for the European bee, boxwoods add value.

Ilex opaca, American holly, ranked 3 for both pollen and nectar. Not too shabby for being insignificant.

And here are three examples of significant flowers with little or no nectar and pollen for the European honey bee.

Forsythia suspensa was ranked 0 and 0 for nectar and pollen in Dr. Lindtner’s Study, but the flowers are considered significant.

We are getting a little better with Betula pendula, the birch, which ranked 1 for pollen and 1 for nectar. At least it’s something.

Brunnera macrophylla, Siberian bugloss, is only a 1 and 0 for pollen and nectar, but it sure is showy!

So, whose in? I’m campaigning against the term “insignificant” and evolving to say, “pollinator-friendly,” when applicable.

Life-long sustainable advocate Helen Yoest is executive director of Bee Better.