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?
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.
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?