Bees are vital for pollination in the home vegie patch but they are also vital for our survival as a race as so much of our food and clothing depends on bees for pollination. The first thing we should do to create a bee friendly garden is to make sure that we grow plants that have flowers that attract bees. Plants like rosemary and lavender are a great and make sure you have plants flowering all year round. To demonstrate how to attract bees in my garden ‘Habitat’ at the Royal Adelaide Show I have lots of flowers that they would love for pollen and nectar, as well as a bee hive and an insect hotel for native bees, and larger than life metal honey and blue banded bees.
Bees under threat
The scary and tragic fact is that bees are under threat worldwide and, bringing it back to a more domestic scale, they are threatened in urban environments, including Adelaide and the Hills. Yet bees are essential to our survival. A huge proportion of our food crops rely upon bees as pollinators. If bees were prettier and didn’t sting, perhaps more people would be out there campaigning for them. However many are still slightly scared of bees.
As well as the European honey bees which grace our gardens and can be cultivated in hives, there are also over 1500 species of native bees, with 500 species in South Australia alone. The native bees we get here in SA are solitary and don’t give us honey like the stingless bees they can cultivate north from Sydney. However just because they don’t provide us with honey, doesn’t mean we should ignore them. They play a really important part in the pollination of Australian native plants and in fact there are many plants which can only be pollinated by native bees. They are also great pollinators for our vegies and fruit trees and are said to be ten times more effective at pollinating flowers than the European honey bee. The blue banded bee for example is perfect for pollinating our tomatoes and eggplants, and these crops will taste better if pollinated by these native bees.
They come in a range of shapes and sizes from 2-25mm long and are often confused with other insects such as hoverflies. They can be brightly coloured or black and brown. About half of the native species nest in the soil, and the other half use existing crevices or hollows in wood. The blue banded bee is one of the prettiest and I usually hear them in my garden before I ever see them, as their buzzing is louder and lower than a European honeybee. They have black stripes over a stunning teal blue body and are larger than a honeybee. There are also leaf cutter bees named because they protect their offspring in their nest by cutting pieces of leaves, and resin bees which make a resin to close its nest to protect its young.
Every backyard has the potential to be a sanctuary for bees however you need to understand some basics for this to happen.
- Food. This is easy – you just need flowers, lots of them, lots of different types of flowers including local native and exotic, lots of different shapes, flowering at different times of year. The currently style of landscaping which uses just one or two varieties of strappy or spiky plants repeated with just lawn or paving does nothing to provide for bees. What flowers should you plant? Well I would start with a range of herbs as bees just love them and you get the added bonus of being able to use them in the kitchen. If you have rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, basil, parsley and chives that is a great start and add in some French lavender and you will have flowers most of the year. Borage self-seeds all around my vegie patch. I haven’t just got it because its blue flowers look pretty, or are worth more per kg than gold as people who do cake decorating love to crystallise them, I have them because they are beloved by bees. Another group of flowers that bees love are daisies so in my vegie patch calendulas abound on the edge of paths. The shape of the flower acts as a landing pad and bees are always gracing their blooms. As far as colours go, apparently bees see the ultraviolet spectrum so the colours we observe would be different for them, however they appear to like yellow, orange, violet, purple and blue. The colour they cannot see is red!?
- Stop using sprays – no pesticides, insecticides, fungicides or herbicides. Basically nothing that ends in ‘-icides’ as this means to kill. Bees are very sensitive to chemicals sprays, and are also very sensitive to organic sprays such as pyrethrum, so avoid using any. If you really must use a spray, consider what you are spraying and whether bees forage there and also think about the time of day you spray and avoid using it when bees are active. The most popular home garden insecticide in Australia, used to treat a wide range of insect pest is a neonicotinoid and supposedly low toxic. Yet this same product is banned in Europe due to its link to worldwide bee decline. This product is being widely used in Adelaide as a tree injection for elm leaf beetle ……………and yet elm trees are pollinated by bees and they are often abuzz with them. Please investigate alternatives.
- Water. People often think about their dog or chooks on a hot day and make sure they have fresh plentiful water left out for them. Well don’t forget to leave water out each day for your bees. Make sure you leave a shallow bowl or place some large rocks in a bird bath to act as a landing platform for them. This will also be helpful to butterflies. Over the years I can’t tell you how many people have asked me to help them design a garden around their new swimming pool and requested that I plant something that doesn’t attract bees. They just don’t get it – they have put one of the major draw cards for bees in the middle of their backyard, so of course bees are going to land in the water. And, since they can’t swim, if you are bobbing around in the water, you can’t blame them for landing on you.
- Habitat. This is particularly important for our native bees. 50% of them are earth dwelling and as many gardeners now religiously cover all of their soil with mulch, they are not leaving anywhere uncovered and undisturbed for these bees to live. Others live in borer holes and others in pithy hollow stems. You can create a native bee hotel to cover their habitat needs of native bees in your garden however there are some specifics about how to build one properly that they will use so watch http://www.abc.net.au/gardening/stories/s4701951.htm
Many backyards are also choosing to keep a backyard hive for honey and pollination. To learn more about urban beekeeping get in touch with the Beekeepers’ Association of South Australia via http://bees.org.au/.