Monarda: A Balm for Bees and People

Monarda fistulosa and Monarda didyma are native to eastern Canada and the United States.

It’s late July, a high-summer evening in the garden. I close my eyes and listen to the gentle hum of bumble bees and honey bees. The heavy aroma of day lilies mixes with the lighter scent of phlox. I brush my hand on the foliage next to our patio, releasing a different scent: the tangy mint of monarda. Two kinds grow in our garden: fiery red Monarda didyma and lavender-pink Monarda fistulosa.  Also known as bergamot, both are native to Minnesota and to much of the eastern United States and Canada.

Ten or more years ago, I found lavender monarda growing next to our cabin driveway. That autumn, I brought home a small portion and planted it. A few years later, I purchased the red monarda at Leitner’s, a local garden center. Both flourish as long as late winter and spring aren’t too wet.

Bright red M. didyma smells more spicy than the pink M. fistulosa.

Monarda belongs to the mint family, but is much taller and better behaved than many of its minty cousins. Look closely and you’ll see mint characteristics: square rather than round stems, tubular flowers, opposite leaves and of course the wonderful minty scent when one brushes against the foliage.

Besides monarda, there are other names for the plants. Bergamot applies to both species. Oswego tea and bee balm apply to the red M. didyma, but the term bee balm is also loosely used for M. fistulosa. I thought it referred to how happy the bees are when they’re in the monarda, but according to a book about wildflower lore, a salve or balm was made from the leaves to treat bee stings. Monarda plants also were used by many Native American people to treat headaches, abdominal problems, colds and other bronchial issues. Both species were used as a tea substitute in the American colonies after the Patriot Sons of Liberty dumped 46 tons of British East India Tea into Boston Harbor in December 1773.

Bumble bees (Bombus spp.) prefer the lavender-pink monarda in our garden. Their long tongues can reach the nectar in the deep, tubular flowers.

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) flies in to drink the nectar of Monarda ‘Jacob Kline’. They favor red monarda.

Monarchs, fritillaries, red admiral butterflies and hummingbird clearwing moths nectar in both species of monarda. Goldfinches peck the seed heads of the lavender monarda and hummingbirds visit the red ones. I’ve noticed that honey bees nectar almost exclusively in the tubular flowers of red monarda. Bumble bees, though not as fussy as honey bees, seem to prefer the pink — and sometimes they’ll take a quick nap on a blossom! Bees lack a photoreceptor for the color red, but according to “The ABC’s of Bees,” some red flowers, including bee balm, have ultraviolet coloring mixed in, which makes them appear blue and inviting to bees. Also, like humans, bees are attracted to scent and perhaps honey bees prefer the spicier scent of the red monarda. As the sky darkens and the crickets begin chirping, I look again at the beauty of bee balm and, like the bees, enjoy the spicy mint aroma before I go inside for the night.

Hummingbird clearwing moths (Hemaris thysbe), like their namesake, nectar in monarda’s tubular flowers.

A great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) nectars on pink bergamot.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) love the red bee balm and visit every evening.

A bumble bee settles in for an afternoon snooze on pink bergamot.

August’s Beauty

August’s warm, sunny days hum with insect activity.  Many kinds of bees and wasps, butterflies and grasshoppers inhabit the colorful swaths of wildflowers and grasses along country roads.  The buzzing of bees is soft against the louder trills and whirs of crickets, grasshoppers and gray tree frogs.  Scents of sweet clover and grass fill the air. Here is a sampling of the beauty my husband and I enjoyed when we walked along the road near our cabin in east central Minnesota last weekend.

Great spangled frilillary on native monarda.

Great spangled frilillary (Speyeria cybele) on native monarda.

Woodland sunflowers grow in shadier patches along the road.

Woodland sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) grow in dappled sun along the road.

Jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not grows in moist, sunny spots.

Spotted jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis).

Native big bluestem is also called turkey foot grass due to the shape of the seed heads.

Native big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) is also called turkeyfoot grass due to the shape of its seed heads.

This common wood-nymph's bright eyespot caught my attention.

This common wood-nymph’s (Cercyonis pegala) bright eyespot caught my attention.

Non-native rabbit-clover is a low-growing plant that provides color along dusty country roads.

Non-native rabbit-clover (Trifolium arvense) is a low-growing plant that provides color along dusty country roads.

 

The native field thistle is a favorite of bees and butterflies.

The native field thistle (Cirsium discolor) is a favorite of bees and butterflies.

The field thistle's "down" is used by American goldfinches to line its nest and the seeds are a favorite goldfinch food.

Field thistle’s “down” is used by the American goldfinch to line its nest and the seeds are a favorite goldfinch food.

A white-faced meadowhawk watches for prey.

A white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) watches for prey.

Swamp or blue vervain prefers moist, loamy soil and lots of sun.

Swamp or blue vervain (Verbena hastata) prefers moist, loamy soil and lots of sun.

Brown-eyed Susan's and a few early-blooming asters.

Black-eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) or sweet coneflower and a few early-blooming asters.

Priarie or western ironweed (Vernonia fasiculata).

Priarie or western ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata).

Hog peanut is a member of the pea family. (More to come in a later post.)

Hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) is a member of the pea family.

Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas)

Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas).

European bull thistle with bumble bee.

European bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) with bumble bee.

First buds of sweet Joe-Pye begin to open.

First buds of sweet Joe-Pye (Eutrochium purpureum) begin to open.

Male American redstart warbler.

Male American redstart warbler (Setophaga ruticilla).