The plight of the bee

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Bees face many challenges

Many gardeners are concerned about the plight of bees. Bees currently face many threats, including diseases and mites; loss of habitat and plants for foraging, because of urbanisation and modern agricultural practices; and poisoning from certain pesticides used in agriculture and gardens, particularly those from the neonicotinoid class (which includes Confidor).

The loss of bees (for example, through the phenomenon of 'colony collapse disorder') has potentially drastic implications for the world's food supply. Bees are the most important insect pollinators of flowers: essential for the production of fruit, certain vegetables and agricultural crops, as well as flower and vegetable seeds. One thing that gardeners can do to help bees is to grow plants that are abundant in nectar and pollen in their gardens. Bees are complex creatures that live in a highly organised society, and communicate with one another to convey information about where to find good sources of food. I somehow like to think of my garden being on the map in the bee world!

Many native plants attract bees, including Acacia pravissima; photographed in the farm garden, Southern Tablelands of NSW

Much of our native flora - including many species of Eucalyptus, Corymbia, Angophora, Acacia, Banksia, Grevillea, Callistemon and Melaleuca - provides excellent floral resources for bees. There are many compact varieties available that are suited for home gardens.

Bees are attracted to lavender blooms; photographed in Umbria, Italy

Numerous introduced plants are also very attractive to bees. Flower shape (providing ease of access to pollen and nectar) and colour (they are said to be particularly drawn to the colours blue, purple and yellow) seem to be important determinants of the appeal, and certain plant families seem to have a special attraction. One of the most important of these is the mint family (Lamiaceae). The flowers of many kitchen herbs are from this family and have a great appeal for bees, including rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, thyme, basil, mint, marjoram and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) - plants that many of us grow because of their usefulness in cooking. Other favoured plants from this family include lavenders, most of the different Salvia species, Nepeta, Teucrium and Agastache.

Echium candicans is a favourite bee plant; photographed on Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour

The borage family (Boraginaceae) contains many bee plants: the herb borage, the various species of Echium (including the spectacular spring-flowering Echium candicans and the notorious yet beautiful weed Paterson's curse, Echium plantagineum), Heliotropium, Pulmonaria, common forget-me-nots and Chinese forget-me-nots.

Cosmos is a daisy flower attractive to bees; photographed at Heligan Garden, Cornwall, UK

Plants from the Asteraceae family are also considered to be bee-friendly - the best ones to grow are the single-flowered types, as otherwise the bees cannot easily access the nectar and pollen. Most of these are suitable for Sydney gardens - for example, perennial Aster, purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Gazania, Gaillardia, Dahlia, Coreopsis, ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare), Cosmos, Zinnia and Rudbeckia.

Amongst introduced shrubs and trees, citrus flowers (such as those of the lemon or lime) are beloved by bees, as are the various sorts of Prunus, along with Malus (crab apples), Gordonia, Jacaranda and Abelia.

Including some of these plants in your garden will help to encourage bees to visit. It is best to plant a reasonable size clump of any particular annual or perennial (a good practice in any case, to avoid a 'bitty' look in your garden!) and try to have a few bee plants in flower in every season to provide ongoing forage. Bee plants are best grown in full sun, as bees often ignore those grown in shade. They also dislike strong wind, so providing shelter from wind is a factor. Bees also need water: wet sand, a shallow-edged pool or a birdbath with stones in it can all be provide a suitable source. Avoiding the use of pesticides toxic to bees is also very important.

Your reward will be a garden alive with the buzzing of bees! If you want to take the next step and get into bee-keeping, there is some information about how to do so here.