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Milkweed is one of the most popular flowering

Milkweed is one of the most popular flowering plants for pollinators as well as a favorite food source for Monarch butterfly larvae. Foraging bees and wasps also seek it out for its pollen and nectar. Photo Credit: AP / Dean Fosdick

Kids often bristle at mention of the word “bees,” but gardeners seldom do. That’s because we know we need them, and barring allergies, bees don’t really pose much of a threat. They aren’t aggressive and usually don’t attack unless they sense danger to themselves or their hive. Stepping on or swatting a bee would qualify as a perceived threat, as would invading a hive, but gardening alongside a few busy bees seldom results in a sting.

A few years back, I visited with a beekeeper and eventually took off my gloves and face protection. Dozens of them covered my skin and, yet, it was oddly calming. I didn’t sustain even one sting.

Yellow jackets are another story; they’re not bees but rather wasps, which often attack without provocation. For most bees, a sting is a weapon of last resort: An attack ensures the bee’s certain death because the insect’s stinger is torn from its abdomen when it withdraws. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, will sting you a dozen times and live to laugh about it with their friends. Big difference.

Bees collect nectar from plants and transfer pollen from flower to flower, which enables fertilization and the subsequent production of fruits, vegetables and seeds. They are the real heroes of the garden, but they need something from us in return: specific plants that provide the food they need. Reward them by restoring their dwindling habitat and planting these flowers and herbs to help ensure their survival. We can’t survive without them, either.

Bee balm

Give it nutrient-rich soil, plenty of sun and water, and this perennial will reward you with years of unusually shaped flowers. Enjoy the parade of butterflies, hummingbirds and bees that march by, and dry the leaves for tea. But plant it judiciously — in a field, meadow or section of the garden where you want it to spread; bee balm is related to mint, and will behave accordingly.

Borage

An annual herb also called “starflower” for its showy blue blossoms. Borage, which has a taste reminiscent of cucumber, can be used in salads or added to seafood recipes. Harvest leaves while they’re young and velvety — before they become prickly.

Cosmos

American yellow cosmos can reach 7 feet tall, but some hybrids are much shorter. Plant these annuals, which also are available in white, pink, orange and purple, in full sun and shear once a month for best results. Don’t bother fertilizing — or providing too much water; they’ll do better without.

Dill

Because it is prone to transplant shock, it’s best to start this herb from seed, directly in the garden, after the danger of frost has passed. Select a spot in direct sun with well-draining soil. Remove buds before flowers form for continued leaf production. Although an annual, it is not uncommon for dill to self-sow and return the following year.

Milkweed

Bees aren’t the only insects that depend upon milkweed for survival: It’s the only larval food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars in North America. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the plant’s “increasing scarcity” is “one of the biggest factors in monarch decline.” The tender perennial is treated like an annual here in zone 7.

Nasturtium

Nasturtiums grow best in full sun and prefer well-draining soil, so they’re well-suited for the sandy shore. While attracting bees, the annuals repel aphids, spider mites and whiteflies. They’ll even improve the flavor of tomatoes planted nearby.

Orlaya

This annual sports intricate lacy white flowers atop upright stems on well-branched plants. Plant in full sun, but be aware they tend to wither in extreme heat.

Penstemon

Available in a variety of colors, these perennials bloom from late spring through summer and are well-suited for full sun. Drought- and heat-tolerant.

Sunflowers

Plant in loose, well-draining soil, then stand back! Some sunflower varieties can grow to more than 15 feet tall. Plant seeds directly in the garden after the danger of frost has passed, and give them plenty of room, sunlight and fertilizer.

Zinnia

Available in an array of jewel-tone colors and various shapes and sizes, there’s a zinnia for everyone. Heat-loving and easy to grow, these annuals bloom from spring through fall. Plant in full sun in rich, moist soil.

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