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With their stunning pink flowers, azalea bushes are an eye-catching addition to any landscape. Every spring, these shrubs unleash a cascade of blooms that make them highly desirable for any gardener. Amazingly, they’re also easy to grow and require little care. What’s not to like? But, do bees like azaleas as much as we do?
Yes! Bees like azaleas, and not just the traditional pink ones. Though this plant can be slow-growing, even smaller bushes can produce an astonishing number of flowers that are sure to capture the attention of your neighborhood hive!
Why are azaleas good for attracting bees?
Azaleas typically bloom between March and June. Some azaleas bloom even earlier in the season and depending on the variety, azaleas can bloom anywhere from February to September. They also come in a variety of colors, including white, violet, yellow, and blue, and bees seem to enjoy them all!
Bees like azaleas because they’re one of only a handful of flowers (including bulb flowers, like tulips) available to them when they wake up in the springtime. When food sources are limited, bees are more likely to visit the flowers they don’t normally like. Of course, that’s not to say that bees don’t enjoy azaleas. They do!
These flowers have quite a bit of pollen for bees to collect. And they need that pollen for brood-rearing, so it is important. But azaleas are also a great source of nectar, the sugary sweet liquid bees use to make honey. Depending on whether or not you raise your own bees, this can be a good or a bad thing (we’ll talk more about this in a minute!).
Which types of bees like azaleas?
Which bees like which flowers can be a tough thing to pin down. In theory, any bee can like any flower. But, realistically, most bees have preferences. While certain flowers, like daisies and sunflowers, are universally appealing to bees, other flowers can be hit or miss. Whether or not your bees will like your azaleas depends on their unique cravings. Some bees simply like azaleas more than others.
When you see bees buzzing around your azalea bushes, they’re most likely bumblebees. These are larger bees, measuring about a half-inch to one inch in length. Thanks to the bumblebee’s long proboscis, they can easily reach the nectar pots that sit deep in the azalea flowers. For bumblebees, azaleas are an easy meal.
Honeybees, on the other hand, have smaller, shorter proboscises. As a result, they can’t tap into that well of nectar as easily as bumblebees can. But honeybees are also smaller than bumblebees so they can collect the nectar that lines the petals deep inside the flower. And the deeper they can fit into the flower, the more nectar they can collect. It takes a bit more work for the honeybee, but depending on how determined they are, they can still collect nectar from these beautiful blooms.
In addition to bees, azaleas can help bring hummingbirds and butterflies to your yard. So if you want to attract as many different pollinators to your garden as possible, azaleas offer more bang for your buck. Just be sure to plant your azaleas in acidic, well-drained soil, in a place where they get morning sun and afternoon shade.
Are azaleas good for bees?
Azaleas, and other members of the rhododendron family, contain grayanotoxins. This substance is present in all parts of the plant, from the leaves and stems to the nectar and pollen. Grayanotoxins block normal muscle function in mammals, leading to heart and nerve problems, as well as neurological issues. In some cases, even being stung by a bee that has pollinated azaleas or rhododendrons can contribute to symptoms of grayanotoxin poisoning. Yikes!
The good news is bees do not appear to be susceptible to these toxins themselves. And the reason why probably has to do with how they store the pollen and nectar. See, bees don’t usually eat raw pollen and nectar. They’re too difficult to digest. Instead, bees mix these substances with their saliva, which contains enzymes that help break them down.
Once the nectar and pollen have been mixed with saliva to make honey and bee bread, they’re stored in the hive. During the storage period, the toxins in the azalea pollen and nectar are degraded. So, by the time the bees eat them, they’re digestible. Well, for the bees, at least.
Is it safe to eat honey made from azaleas?
Honey made from the azalea plant does not harm bees. However, consuming honey made with azalea nectar can lead to “mad honey disease” in humans. In high concentrations, grayanotoxins in azalea honey can cause low blood pressure, confusion, dizziness, and atrial-ventricular block in humans. So, needless to say, it’s best avoided.
Now, one or two azalea plants probably won’t make your honey toxic. Bees have to visit around 1,200 flowers just to make one teaspoon of honey. The nectar they collect from a couple of azalea bushes will be so diluted with nectar from other flowers that it shouldn’t pose a problem to humans. Just be sure to offer your hive plenty of other non-toxic flowers to pollinate.
Lavender is a rich source of nectar that blooms for long periods of time, so it can keep up with your hive’s demand. Meanwhile, honeysuckle, daisies, and zinnias provide lots of pollen to keep your bees happy and healthy. Giving your bees multiple flowers to choose from is always a smart choice because bees are foragers who love to fly from flower to flower.
Even if you have a lot of azalea plants growing in your yard, don’t rip them out just yet! These plants can still help support your domestic bees. By allowing your hive to pollinate your azaleas, you’ll be helping them store up food for winter. To avoid accidentally consuming azalea honey, simply stop collecting honey from your hive while the azaleas are in bloom. A week or two after the azaleas die back, you can resume honey-collecting as normal.
Azaleas give bees a steady supply of nectar and pollen at a time when food is hard to find. With a few extra precautions, you can use these beautiful flowers to feed your domestic hive. And, if you just want to keep wild bees busy, azalea bushes can help you do that, too!