Sunflower-a food hub for pollinators

Sunflowers are perhaps one of the most well known summer flowers, especially here in Kansas. The sunflower is iconic for it’s beauty, resilience, and benefit to pollinators and wildlife.

Mid to late summer is the time when sunflower blooms burst into view and remind us why they are such a foundational plant in the prairie.

Pollinator food hub

Sunflowers are a pollinator food hub. These flowers provide copious amounts of the two things pollinators need most, nectar and pollen.

Nectar is fuel for adult pollinators as well as butterflies and many other flower visitors. This sugary drink is what allows them to do what they do. Nectar is primarily carbohydrates and water. It contains sugars such as sucrose, fructose, and glucose that power pollinator life.

Nectar produced by sunflowers is fuel for pollinators

Pollen is primarily a source of rich protein that bees collect in order to feed their larva and produce the next generation. Bees typically mix pollen with nectar or glandular secretions to form ‘bee bread’ which is the diet for larval bees. Pollen types vary greatly from flower to flower, but sunflower pollen has extra benefits for bees.

Bumblebees feeding on nectar and collecting sunflower pollen

Medicinal qualities

Sunflower pollen has been shown to have important medicinal qualities for bees. Research done in 2018 showed that sunflower pollen consistently and dramatically reduce a protozoan pathogen infection in bumble bees and also reduced a microsporidian pathogen that affect European honey bees. There is indication that sunflower pollen could have broad anti-parasitic effects for pollinators. Read more about this study here.

Easy to grow

Not only are sunflowers extremely beneficial for pollinators, but they are easy to grow. Direct seed sunflowers in a location with full sun after all danger of frost has passed.  Plant seeds one about inch deep. For varieties that are 2-5 feet tall, leave about 6 inches between them.  Space taller sunflowers at least 1’ apart and giant sunflowers 2’ apart. 

Gardeners have many options when it comes to sunflowers. Some varieties of sunflowers can get extremely large, but others are dwarf and stay much smaller. Here are examples of just a few of the varieties available.

Cultivars of branching sunflowers (plants produce branches with many blooms) include:

  • ‘Sonja’
  • ‘Autumn Beauty’
  • ‘Shock ‘O Lat’
  • ‘Teddy Bear’

Cultivars of dwarf types (stay around 3 feet-but may be larger in optimum conditions) include: 

  • ‘Yellow Pygmy’
  • ‘Sunspot’
  • ‘Ms. Mars’

Cultivars of semi-dwarf sunflowers (3 to 8 feet and don’t require staking) include: 

  • ‘Cappuccino’
  • ‘Chianti’
  • ‘Italian White’
  • ‘Moulin Rouge’

Cultivars of giant sunflowers (8 feet or taller) include: 

  • ‘Lemon Queen’ (a great variety for pollinators)
  • ‘Mammoth Russian’
  • ‘American Giant’

Avoid pollenless varieties if planting to support pollinators

There are a number of cultivars of pollenless sunflowers that are typically used for cut flowers since they do not produce the yellow pollen that can stain clothing. While great for cut flowers, these cultivars do not produce the pollen needed for bees to reproduce. Be sure to read the fine print carefully when purchasing seed to ensure the variety you are getting produces pollen.

Examples of cultivars of pollenless sunflowers include: 

  • ‘ProCut Series’
  • ‘Double Quick’
  • ‘Sunrich’

Perennial sunflowers

There are also several types of perennial sunflowers you can count on to come back year after year.

  • Willow leaf sunflower
  • Rigid sunflower
  • Maximilian sunflower
  • Jerusalem artichoke (has edible roots)