Everyone Knows Bees Like Sunflowers

Everyone knows that bees like sunflowers.  Humans love them too, and they are a particular favourite among children.

Indeed, I'm sure almost everyone knows what they look like.  Ask anyone to draw a picture of a sunflower, and 9 - if not 10 times out of 10, they'll draw one of the tall, thick-stemmed, large-headed, cheery-faced gangly specimens we are all familiar with.

Next time you come across these wonderful, large-headed sunflowers, take a good look at the centre of the flower head. It's not only bees that love sunflowers, hover flies and all manner of other little flies and tiny beetles are likely to be present, sharing in the feast of pollen and nectar.

Thanks to pollination by the bees and other insects, the magnificent heads will begin to bear fruit in the form of seeds that are much appreciated by birds, especially finches.

A large golden yellow sunflower being visited by 2 bumble bees.Everyone knows that bees like sunflowers.

Sunflowers are also known as Helianthus.

Of course, among the tall varieties, the bright yellow blooms are perhaps the most commonly seen and grown.  I recall as a child taking part in a youth club sunflower growing competition.  Such competitions are still popular today.  

I dutifully planted 5 black and white striped seeds (provided by the youth club), and tended them carefully, potting them outside when they were sufficiently strong and sturdy.  We were allowed to enter one of the plants from the 5 seeds into the competition.

The day came for one of the organisers to measure my sunflower.  It had grown quite tall, and had the lovely yellow petals and sunshine face we are all familiar with.  I actually got third prize in the competition, and the prize was a chocolate bar.  I was about 7 years old, and I was very pleased!

A single golden yellow sunflower head being visited by many flies, beetles and a white tailed bumble bee.Take a good look at the centre of the flower head. It's not only bees that love sunflowers, hover flies and all manner of other little flies and tiny beetles are likely to be present.

Many sunflowers suit many bees and pollinators!

Of course, sunflowers are available in shades other than the bright yellow favourite.  Shades through to rusty brown and red-blushed deep yellows are available, along with compact dwarf varieties.

Rusty brown sunflower with a visiting bumble beeShades through to rusty brown and red-blushed deep yellows are available.

However, my favourite of all sunflowers for growing in the garden are the willowy yet sturdy stemmed perennial sunflowers.

In my experience, these lovely Helianthus are as attractive as their stouter cousins to bees, butterflies and other pollinators such as hover flies.

Speckled wood butterfly on Helianthus - a smaller type of sunflowerSpeckled wood butterfly on Helianthus.

I was first given a small clump of rhizomatous root growth several years ago, which I planted in the garden.  I have moved it around several times, split it up and given a portion to a neighbour. However, the plant is now in its permanent position at the back of the border.

Common carder bumble bee and marmalade hover fly on yellow perennial <I>Helianthus</I>.Common carder bumble bee and hover fly on perennial Helianthus.

The photographs I have here (not all of them from my garden) are of  Helianthus x 'Lemon Queen',  and  it grows 4-6 feet tall.  In my garden, it’s at the 6ft mark with just a few shorter stems, and like other sunflowers of its type, it brings welcome vibrancy to the flower border, in addition to providing food for pollinators from late summer to autumn. 

2 white tailed bumble bees on a Helinathus - perennial sunflower. This is 'Lemon Queen'.There's still room for 2 on a Helinathus - perennial sunflower. This is 'Lemon Queen'.

This is the period of time when new bumble bee queens will need to feed vigorously to lay down fat to see them through the winter.

In addition, some of the later bumble bee workers (depending on the summer and time of flower) may still be out foraging for a colony that hopefully by now will be at its peak, perhaps focusing its efforts on rearing males and new queens.

Honey bees also appreciate the lovely blooms, along with butterflies, hover flies, and various other flies and small beetles.  Patches of Helianthus, Lemon Queen, hum and buzz with activity from pollinators of various types.

Honey bees also like sunflowers.Honey bees also like sunflowers.

Similar specimens include Helianthus angustifolius which has brown-purple centres, and can also reach 6 ft.

Even taller varieties are available, for example Helianthus maximiliani is one of the tallest perennial sunflowers, and can reach up to 10 feet tall!  It’s perfect for a very wide border that needs both height, and brings sunshine yellow and even better – bees and butterflies to the garden.

If you love the cheerful flowers but don’t have space for a tall specimen, then at the opposite end of the scale, do look up compact Helianthus varieties.

a patch of tall sunflower at the back of a flower border.These tall sunflower varieties bring vibrancy, cheer and pollinators to the back of the border.

Growing and caring for Helianthus

If you are planting one of the stout, tall varieties, you can start them off indoors or outdoors from seed.   Outisde, ensure the plants are about 1 foot apart.  They obviously need a sunny spot and access to deep soil so the roots can support the tall plant.

You may need to provide plant supports if you live in an area prone to strong winds.

The seed heads can be left for the birds.

For the perennial types described, plant your root growth in a sunny spot. After flowering, you can cut the stems right back.  This is a good time to divide clumps if yours is large enough, and give some to the local school or neighbours.

Tall Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' at the rear of the flower border. In the foreground, yellow Rudbeckia and blue EchinopsHelianthus 'Lemon Queen' at the rear of the flower border. In the foreground, Rudbeckia and Echinops

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