Something serious is happening to wild bees and butterflies. Populations of many species are in decline and a growing number are endangered. The flowers and trees growing in yards and gardens are part of the solution for protecting pollinators and preserving the ecoservices they provide.

Trees and bees are more than a great combination, it’s a necessary one, for them and us. Trees need bees for converting flowers into fruit, nuts and seeds. Bees need trees for the nutritious nectar and pollen they provide.

Trees have been called “meadows in the sky,” a place where wildlife thrives. What’s happening in the canopy is often missed because it’s higher than where we normally look and when we do, bees and caterpillars are hard to see. We may not know it but trees are busy places for insects.

Blackhaw viburnum fruit and fall color Terrace View, Lombard

Some trees are better for bees and caterpillars than others. Native species are best. Native bees and butterflies are well matched with native trees because they evolved together over thousands of years. Each has what is needed by the other to complete their life cycle. The times when bees are active matches when trees are flowering and they have the right shape and skill for accessing the nectar and pollen. This is also true for native trees and butterflies. The nutrition in the leaves is exactly what caterpillars require.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) provide nectar and pollen for bees in early spring

Even among native species, there are a few special trees providing resources for a large number of bees and butterflies. Oaks are at the top of the list. Oaks are a keystone species, capable of sustaining over 500 species of caterpillars. Recent research shows they’re also important for bees. One study found more than ninety species of wild bees active in the forest canopy between March and May. A close examination of what those bees ate revealed it was between 25 and 100 percent tree pollen, primarily from oaks and maples.

The flowers, shrubs and trees growing in yards and gardens make a difference for bees and butterflies.

Planting native keeps them safe.

Native Trees and Shrubs for Illinois Pollinators

Nameheightflowersoil moisturesunvalue
American Plum15′ – 35′ suckerswhite in. early springmoistsun, pt shade, shadepollen, nectar, larval host, fruit for birds
Basswood30′ – 80′small, fragrantdry, moistsun, pt shade, shadenectar, larval host
Birch (Gray, River, Sweet, Yellow)varies by species 20′-70′catkinsmoist, wetfull sun, partial shadepollen, larval host
Black Chokeberry3′ – 8′ suckerswhite, pink Maymoist, dry mesiclight shade, full sunnectar, pollen, larval host coral hairstreak
Blackhaw Viburnum12-15 to 30′spring, white, showydry, moist, mesicfull sun, pt shadenectar, pollen
Buttonbush6′-12′white, Jun-Septmoist – wetpt shade, shadenectar, pollen
Cherry, (Wild Black)80′ htwhite, late spring, early summermoist to slightly dryfull sun to light shadenectar, pollen, fruit larval host
Chokecherry8′-25′white, mid-late springmoist to dry mesicsun, light shadenectar, pollen
Common Ninebark3′-9′white, May-Junemoist – dryfull to partial nectar, pollen
Dogwood (Pagoda)10′ – 30′ htcream to white, late spring early summermoist, well drainedpartial sunnectar, pollen, larval host
Downy Hawthorn20′-25′white, late springmoist – mesicmoist – mesicnectar, pollen, larval. host
Mapleleaf Viburnum2-6′white, late spring to early summermesic – drydappled sun, light shadenectar, pollen
Maples50′- 80′ htred, early to mid-springprefers moist but tolerates most soilsfull sun to light shadenectar, pollen, larval host cecropia moth
Nannyberry20-30′white, springmoist to drysun, pt shade, shadenectar, pollen, larval host
Oaks60′-100′mid to late springmesic to dry mesicfull to partial sunpollen, larval host
Pussy Willow15′- 20′March – Aprilwet to moistfull sunpollen, larval host
Red Osier Dogwood12′white,late spring – early summermoistpart shadenectar, pollen, larval host
Redbud15′-30′March- Maymoistpt shade, shadenectar, pollen
Serviceberry15′ – 30′ shorter hybrids availablewhite, April, Maymoistfull sun to pt shadenectar, pollen, larval host


Illinois Wildflowers

Native Plants of North America

Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation