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.

Reader Comments

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 March 2014

    Thank you for your blog on bees - their importance in agriculture and in the garden cannot be emphasized enough. I am fortunate that I have bees visiting, in numbers, the whole year, with a variety of flowers of some kind blooming. Over the past few weeks, the blue-banded and teddy bear bees have been busy, visiting my cane begonias. The blue- banded only visited the white and pink flowers, whilst the teddy bears visited the orange and red colours. European bees love the Michaelmas daisies. Your bees sound delightful, Margaret! Deirdre

  • By Pam 2159 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 March 2014

    Unfortunately many gardens today seem to consist of pruned box hedges and ornamental foliage plants - no joy for the bees in those gardens. Very true. If we can include some flowers, it is so much better for bees. Deirdre

  • By Ann 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 March 2014

    As we don"t use pesticides we have many happy bees in our small garden, especially late yesterday with the S. "Waverley" in full bloom. The bees had a real party! That sounds wonderful, Ann. I love watching bees at work and listening to their buzzing. Deirdre

  • By Gillian 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 March 2014

    Thanks for the " bee blog". It is so important that we consider their needs in our gardens. I have been aware of Confidors toxicity for some time but I think there has been far too little awareness of this. Thankyou for getting the word out and reminding us that reaching for a spray can should only ever be our last resort! Thanks, Gillian. I really do not like spraying anything. Deirdre

  • By Jennifer 3056 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 31 March 2014

    In the last couple of weeks my chives have been flowering ( white - not sure what sort of chives they are) and the chive flowers have been covered in bees. It is a delight! Thanks for mentioning that - chives are apparently a great favourite of bees! Deirdre

  • By Diane 3788 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 31 March 2014

    When the flowering gum was in full bloom in my last garden I found bees crawling on the ground under the tree seeming "drunk" on the copious nectar. After a rest they flew off home! Sounds like the bees had a great party in your garden, Diane! Deirdre

  • By Chris 4034 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 31 March 2014

    Thank you Deidre for reminding us of one of the main things in our garden. I enjoy sitting in my garden and watching the bees seek out their nectar. The term busy bees is so true. I too enjoy watching bees as I sit in my garden drinking a cup of tea! Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 March 2014

    Great and timely blog. So glad we are the only country without the varroa mite - but they say it will get here one day -mores the pity. Our little native hive is doing well and strangely enough the bees just loved the cleome flower this summer. Its great to have a buzzy garden. Yes, they seem to like Cleome. Great to have your own hive! Deirdre

  • By margaret 2067 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 31 March 2014

    I have a large white "Natchez" crepe myrtle which always attracts what seems like a million bees when it is flowering. The hum can be heard about 40ft away. Spotted my first blue banded bee last week which was a delight. I always plant borage to attract the bees. Thanks, Margaret. Those banded bees sound cute. I love hearing bees at work. Deirdre

  • By Norman 2653 (Zone:8-9 - Cool Temperate to Alpine) Monday, 31 March 2014

    hello; many thanks for your blog about bees;and also thanks for all the readers comments from there gardens; i love bees & bumblebees in my garden; i don"t like the european wasps; i read all of you"r blogs and enjoy reading them; thank you Thanks so much, Norman. I really want to encourage bees to come to my garden. Deirdre

  • By Lynette 2114 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 02 April 2014

    This summer I planted some salvias & was delighted to find native bees visiting. I"d never noticed them before! In fact, I didn"t know about them until I read an article in Gardening Australia. Normal bees love my lavenders but I always try to have something in flower for them. On the really hot days they come down to the swimming pool for a drink, fine as long as they keep away from us! I"ve been taking salvia cuttings to expand my plantings. My daughter wants some for her garden now too! Your native bees sound a delight, Lyn! Deirdre

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