When it comes to helping pollinators in spring, not all flowering bulbs provide the nectar bees and other insects need. Find out which bulbs can fuel our hungry pollinators while providing beautiful blooms at winter’s end.
Using Flowering Bulbs to Support Spring Pollinators
You know those wonderful early spring days when winter has finally surrendered—at least for the moment—and the sun is shining and the bees come out seeking nectar?
With days or weeks to go before plants like dandelions and early flowering trees and shrubs start showing off their blooms, food sources are scarce.
And this is where the right flowering bulbs can save the day.
Plant them in fall and enjoy them in spring.
You can jump right to the list of recommended bulbs here or keep reading to understand why some flowers are never touched by pollinators and why our bulb selections matter.
Gardening for Pollinators
Gardening for pollinators is a simple arrangement.
We provide a diverse variety of food and habitat through suitable plant selections, give up the pesticides and all that harmful riff raff, and let the pollinators do their thing.
They eat, drink, and be merry consuming the nectar, pollen, or fruit, and, quite incidentally but so importantly, assist with flower reproduction. Keep reading if you’re not sure why this is a big deal (beyond pretty flowers).
These are unintentional but essential mutually-beneficial relationships that have co-evolved over millions of years.
While it may be a straight exchange with some plants and pollinators—you give me nectar, I distribute your pollen—our spring bulbs, which reproduce asexually, are more like cheerleaders on the sidelines providing fuel to sustain things until the main growing season gets underway.
How Pollination Works
So how does pollination happen? This is completely over-simplified and generalized but here is the gist of it.
As the animal forages—this could be a bee, bird, moth, wasp, bat, beetle, fly, or small mammal— male plant pollen from the flower stamen sticks to its body. The animal continues foraging and that pollen gets on the female parts (stigma) of either the same flower or a flower on another plant of the same species. The plant is fertilized and can now produce fruit and seeds.
Related: Do Plants Have Sexes?
Again, it’s not a direct exchange with early flowering bulbs which reproduce on their own and don’t need help with pollination, but their nectar is still valuable to those hungry critters.
With approximately 80 percent of the world’s flowers dependant on animal pollination and approximately 80 percent of food crop pollination assisted by bees—the rest by other insects, wind, and so on, it’s not a leap to say this is indeed essential for life on earth.
TIP: One of the best food sources for pollinators in early spring is flowering trees and shrubs. With thousands and thousands of flowers in one place, they can access reams of food with little effort.
Why Not All Bulbs Are Beneficial
When I started researching this topic to learn which spring-flowering bulbs support pollinators, one thing stood out.
It’s not enough to choose the right plant species.
With all the hybrids and cultivars out there, you need to check that the specific species and variety is actually pollinator-approved.
Avoid Fancy Hybrids
For example, some flowering plants are bred to have frilly, double, or triple blooms or overlapping petals that look interesting but make it impossible for the insect to access the nectar or pollen.
This is not only true for flowering bulbs but all flowering plants produced for gardens.
In our zeal for fabulous new shapes and colors we have sometimes landed in beautiful but useless territory.
Once you become pollinator-centric, it’s the usefulness of plants that makes them beautiful.
Some hybridized flowers may come in colors or have odors so far from the original species that their pollinators are not attracted to them.
Others have little or no nectar and may also be sterile.
One example is tulips. What we call straight species tulips (Tulipa spp.) or unhybridized tulips are pollinator-friendly. But many of the fancy-schmancy hybridized tulips are not.
To know you’re getting the right bulbs, ask or check.
- Can my local pollinators use this plant for nectar or pollen?
- Is this a straight species or a hybrid that still provides easy-to-access nectar?
I also highly recommend learning the botanical names of your garden plants where you can.
Botanical taxonomy—the proper way to list the entire plant name—tells you things like species, cultivar, and hybrid names, making plant selection easier. Once you know the basic formula for how the written names are formatted, there’s a lot more information at a glance.
The Best Bulbs are Beautiful and Useful
With so many good options available and hungry bees and other insects depending on it, it seems a shame to plant flowers with nothing but good looks to contribute.
Use the list I’ve provided below, do your homework to confirm the choices are suited to your region and know you are growing something that will be both beautiful and useful.
You can often guess a plant’s pollinator based on the shape, color, and odor (or lack of) of a flower.
Hummingbirds pollinate long, tuberous flowers and certain flies pollinate plants like carrots and goldenrod that have lots of easy to access pollen.
Bees like to have a landing platform on (mostly) light-colored flowers while moths go for flowers with strong, sweet fragrances at night.
Love Magnolia Blooms? Thank a beetle. Beetles pollinate magnolias, paw-paws, and yellow pond lilies.
Read More Here: What Pollinators Need
Pollinator-Friendly Spring Flowering Bulbs and Other Geophytes
The plants suggested here are geophytes: perennial bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers that store their food in underground stems or other plant organs. We use the broad term ‘bulb’ for all of them.
Bloom times vary from early spring onward.
If you are wanting native plants, check what is considered native in your area. Many of the bulbs listed below are non-native but still readily used by pollinators.
Also, check with your bulb seller to confirm your selections are pollinator-friendly and proven forage sources and will not be invasive or too aggressive in your garden.
If you want to save or print this list, see the link below.
- Allium Ornamental onion (Allium spp.) Zones 4-9
- Anemone (Anemone spp.) Zones 7-10
- Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) This is a rhizome native to parts of North America. The flowers only last for a day or two. Zones 4-8
- Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) Also an ephemeral native to eastern North America. Zones 3-8
- Camassia | Quamash (Camassia leichtlinii) Zones 3-9
- Claytonia (Claytonia virginica) is a corm and its only pollinator is a tiny miner bee, the Andrena erigeniae. Zones 6-9
- Crocus (Crocus spp.) Zones 3-9 | Buy at Eden Brothers (US)
- Daffodil Narcissus poeticus or N. jonquilla Zones 3-8
- Dutch iris (Iris x hollandica) Zones 5-10
- Fritilaria | Checkered lily | Crown Imperial (Fritillaria Meleagris) Zones 3-10
- Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.) non-native Zones 2-8
- Grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.) Zones 3-9z (US)
- Hyancinth (Hyacinthus) Zones 4-8 | Buy at Eden Brothers
- Iris reticulata A bulbous perennial iris. Zones 5-9
- Lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus spp.) Rhizome. Zones 6-10
- Siberian squill (Scilla sibirica) non-native Zone 2-10
- Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) Zones 3-8
- Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) Zones 3-9
- Trilliums | A rhizomatous bulb Zones 4-7
White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) Pollinated by ants who carry the seeds.
Yellow trillium (Trillium luteum)
Toadshade (Trillium sessile)
- Species Tulips (Tulipa spp.) – Zones 3-8
You can mail order a lovely variety pack here from Naturehills.com. Ships to US lower 48.
- Trout Lily (Erythronium spp.) A true bulb with several native varieties. Zones 3-9
- Winter Aconite or Buttercup (Eranthis spp.)* Zones 2-9
- Wood hyacinth (Hyacinthoides hispanica) Zones 3-9
*can be invasive in natural areas: check first in your region.
Want Pollinators in Your Garden?
- Choose plants including trees and shrubs used by local wildlife for food, nectar, or habitat.
Options will be different in each growing region.
- Avoid use of any products toxic to pollinators.
- Keep it natural: don’t tidy up too much.
Dead and decaying things nourish living things.
The Pollinator Victory Garden
Win the War on Pollinator Decline with Ecological Gardening; Attract and Support Bees, Beetles, Butterflies, Bats, and Other Pollinators
by Kim Eierman
The passion and urgency that inspired WWI and WWII Victory Gardens is needed today to meet another threat to our food supply and our environment—the steep decline of pollinators. The Pollinator Victory Garden offers practical solutions for winning the war against the demise of these essential animals.
by Rhonda Fleming Hayes
It’s no secret that pollinators are increasingly threatened. While you can’t solve all their problems, every gardener can join the front lines. So stow your pesticides and learn how to foster a beautiful, healthy garden that attracts bees, butterflies, birds, and other pollinators.
What Do Butterflies Need to Survive
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛