What the Bees Smell

Squash bees at work

Squash bees at work

My heliotrope was a big disappointment to me this year.  The seeds were ordered from Monticello and when they germinated and grew to plant-hood what did I find?  A great big bush the height of my waist with  feathery heads of purple and then lavender flowers that did not have any scent.

Color me disappointed.  But although I may have been cheated of my almond and sugar and cherry perfume, the bees were in heaven.  The bees and the butterflies were all over my heliotrope practically from the very first day it came into flower in July.  The bees evidently don’t care what human noses smell, they have their own standards of attractiveness.  Which makes me wonder what is it really that bees smell?

Salvia guaranitica "Black and Blue" from pinterest.com

Salvia guaranitica “Black and Blue” from pinterest.com

Their other massive favorite in my front garden bed is a Turkestan sage (Salvia guaranitica) called “Black and Blue” because the bracts of the flowers are black and the flowers themselves are true blue.  See?  Well the bees are never off this plant and the fact is that if it has a smell, the smell is sour. There is a bit of a day old sock coming off Black and Blue which I don’t find particularly pleasant.  Never mind though, the bees love it.  Then there’s sedum, Autumn Joy crowds my garden, at least six different well established plants currently going from a green to a pale pink shade and covered with the local bees.  I don’t smell a thing.

So what are those bees smelling that I don’t?  I had heard of course that bees like sweet smelling flowers but I don’t know if this is true.  They seem to be drawn to  plants with no particularly detectable scent and if there is one, in the case of lavender, then the fragrance is not sweet.  Clean maybe, herbal possibly, but not sweet. They certainly have a color preference and it’s blue.  They’ll go with lavender if that’s the only other option but bees adore blue.  I’d guess that it’s the other pollinators, moths and their relatives who really enjoy the nectar scents of phlox and honeysuckle and who go for the heavily scented white flowers.  Bees don’t seem to care about white.

When it comes to roses the bees love easy access.  Any single rose gets a great deal of bee attention.  You can’t go to the beach near my house without finding a bee hoedown in the rugosas, and whenever I grow single roses ( and I always do) they are full of bees.

Bee on an erand from wikipedia.com

Bee on an erand from wikipedia.com

My feeling is that disappointment or no, I should grow the big heliotrope anyway next year.  I am a clumsy gardener but an earnest one and  don’t spray anything with pesticides, not even roses, which must shift for themselves to survive chez moi.  This means that bee and butterfly visitations are safe.  They can gorge on what grows in our garden beds, and I notice that I appear to have a healthy wild bee hive nearby, so I must be doing something right.

Maybe diversity is what helps the bees to stay healthy?   Here they get some nectar sources they might not normally find hereabouts.  Possibly the inclusion of some old and now rare flowers helps too?  Anyway and whatever the little guys smell, I hope they’re back next season.

Do you grow anything that bees love?


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4 thoughts on “What the Bees Smell

  1. There’s a European linden tree in my backyard that’s over forty years old and almost 60 feet tall. In late June/early July it’s covered in linden blossoms that are absolutely mobbed by bees… thousands and thousands of bees!

    I can hear the humming from the house if the windows are open; it’s like a giant 60-foot-tall bee cathedral. And the smell of the blossoms is amazing; it’s rich, sweet, and pollen-y (a bit like mimosa) with a cool green facet. The bees love the smell and so do I. 🙂

    I don’t use pesticides either, and I have bees everywhere in my yard and garden. Right now they’re all over the goldenrod (I don’t grow it, I’ve just been lazy about weeding). I’ve tried to get a sniff of the goldenrod flowers to see what they smell like, but I hate to surprise anything that can sting.

    It must be like ultraviolet light – bees can smell things outside the human range, as well as see colors that we can’t perceive. Now if we can just get them to describe these smells to us… 😉

    1. A bee cathedral, this sounds so appealing, and I do know what you are describing because we used to have a few lindens at the end of our block in New Jersey. They were full of bees in June and the smell was heavenly.

      I think you’re correct by the way, and bees can smell things that are out of our range. It’s a pity we can’t smell what they do the world would seem like a completely different place to us- maybe a better smelling one!

  2. What do bees smell? I googled it. They have 100 times the power of smell as we humans. From sometimes two miles away they can smell a flower.

    I went to local garden shop yesterday and these posts about Ms. Allen’s garden and the linden tree and others who commented about their lovely gardens, must have inspired me. I saw bees loving the blue steel Russian sage. There were no bees on the long flats of chrysanthemums and pansies. They were wild about the sage with its lavender blooms. (it was mostly green, not a showy flower)

    I pinched a tiny leaf off the sage thinking it might be like cooking sage. Wow! the smell was like a huge dose of Vick’s vapor rub or mentholyptus right under my nose, when I bruised the tiniest leaf.

    1. What do bees like? It’s not that pretty, but they do seem to love all those blues and violets, and they really will tolerate strong smells from the blues and violets. They seem to love them, though sometimes they are more than I can stand.

      !00 times our sense of smell does make the bee scent spectrum really interesting. That must make everyday air kind of like a super highway, or maybe like the internet for scents. That’s a really fascinating idea.

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