Friday, August 31, 2018

Doing our bit to help the bees

While pottering around our inner-city garden, there's always some kind of background noise, whether it's merely traffic, neighbours talking, or local birds calling to one another. But the sound I enjoy the most is the hum of bees. 

A native blue-banded bee closes in on an eggplant flower.
Not only is it a happy sound but it's also a vital signal that our backyard garden is a safe place for bees and other insects to go about their work, and make a living. Doing the right thing by bees isn't rocket science. There's just two steps.
1. Plant bee-friendly flowering plants (and there are lots of them)
2. Stop using harmful insect sprays that kill bees and other beneficial insects.
Bees go mad when our lemon tree flowers, which it will do soon.
As spring is upon us here in Australia, and gardeners everywhere are thinking "what can I plant now", it's the perfect time to put in a plug for becoming a bit more bee-friendly, whether you're a balcony gardener, own a rambling country estate or, like Pam and me, have an ordinary suburban backyard.

Our poppies are blooming now, and bees almost bathe in the plentiful pollen.
Now, I've done numerous postings about bees over the years, and this latest one has been prompted by an email I received from Taronga Zoo (for out-of-towners, Taronga Zoo is Sydney's largest and oldest zoo, situated on the edge of Sydney Harbour — visiting Taronga is a part of most Sydney childhoods. It was certainly part of mine, with countless visits there). 

It might come as a surprise to some to know this, but Taronga Zoo cares for its bees in the same way it does for all its other creatures — with loving devotion. This Sydney winter has been very dry indeed — there's a drought on — and so flowers are fewer and life is tougher for Taronga's bee population (and all other bees in Sydney). One simple reason for looking after bees is that Taronga has its own vegie patch, to provide food for its animals, and as every vegie gardener knows, bees play a vital role in pollinating all sorts of crops.

Taronga's beekeeper inspects one of their hives.
What Taronga would like everyone in Sydney to do is simple: make your garden friendlier for bees. So here's some very basic tips on how to get started, but before I do that, I have to include this next photo, just to show you how popular beekeeping has become in Sydney. 

About 200m from my house, the roof of this corner shop in Marrickville is
very probably what my busy backyard bees called "Headquarters". And so
in doing my bit in the inner-city, I'm helping gourmets to be happy. 
Apart from following guideline number 2: "don't use harmful sprays", following guideline number 1: "plant bee-friendly plants" is very easy to do, because there are so many great plants to choose from. The basic rule is this: if it produces a flower, the bees will find it.

Flowering shrubs: lavender probably tops the list, but all daisies are fabulous, too. Shrubs such as abelia and buddleia are famous bee-attractors, but on a small scale little alyssum (sweet Alice) and nasturtiums do a great job, and so do my poppies. But all annual flowers are great for bees, and probably the perfect choice for smaller gardens and balconies. 

Natives: all the flowering native shrubs are brilliant bee magnets, but top choices would include hardenbergia, grevilleas (which come in all shapes and sizes), bottlebrush, westringia (coast rosemary, a very good hedging plant), and native daisies (Brachyscome). 

Herbs: most people think "foliage/leaves" when you say "herbs", but all herbs flower well and bees love them. Basil is terrific (and now is the time to plant some), but oregano, marjoram, sage, rosemary, mint, coriander and lemon balm all do a great job attracting bees. Borage is probably the star of the bee-friendly herb garden, as bees adore its plentiful blue flowers.

Flowering vegetable crops also attract (and need!) bees, especially tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, zucchini, cucumber, pumpkins, watermelons and squash. So my tip is to plant some low-growing flowers next to your vegie patch, such as alyssum, petunias, low-growing daisies, etc. It's what "potager" gardens are all about: mixing flowers, herbs and vegies together so they attract bees. And besides, potagers just look better.

My citrus trees (lemon, Tahitian lime, Thai lime) all attract stacks of bees, and spring is a great time to plant one, and it's also the perfect time to fertilise them. All other fruit trees are magnets for bees when they are in flower, so if your garden design needs a small tree, think about a fruit tree next time round.

While the name of this thing is a "birdbath" nobody told the bees they can't
visit, so I always make sure there is a gently sloping rock in my birdbath so
bees and other flying little guys can take a drink, especially on a hot day.
So there you go, head off to the garden centre on a "bee-friendly" mission, and help maintain your local honey supply. 

Finally, you can also test out my favourite bee theory: no matter where you put a flowering plant, bees will find it. Go on, plant something in an out-of-the-way spot and keep an eye on it. Once it starts flowering, our little busy, buzzing hard-workers will soon be all over it. That's what I love about bees ... they are so good at their jobs!


MDN said...

Bravo Jamie! I love bees and bumblebees in my garden and enjoy their presence, this year I will plant some single-petaled roses because bees love them and I love roses. I hope spring brings lots of joy and beauty to your garden!

Jamie said...

Roses! yes, of course, roses are a perfect choice, MDN. Best wishes for spring in Argentina ... we're going through a drought here in eastern Australia. Our farmers inland are having a terrible time of it, but even the gardens in the cities by the coast are dry. Here's hoping for spring rain!

Phil in Newy said...

Hi Jamie (& devoted readers :)

Taronga is amazing. Out last visit to Sydney took in a harbour cruise that stopped at Taronga & we took a sky car up the cliff and over the zoo.

My garden went a bit lame this winter, but the bees managed to scrounge from a huge and long-lasting basil, a lavender that never stopped flowering and, surprisingly (to me), garlic and onion 'flowers.'

I plan to buy a "Sydney Stingless Bee" hive from one of a few competing vendors on the Internet (where Google quickly finds them for you). Still comparing two hive designs. The important feature is insulation during winter, when they hang around the place watching tv and playing video games.

A functioning hive with bees costs (when I last looked) $500ish. These little fellows are quite small and might already be in my garden, but haven't made the effort to identify them. For years, however, been aware of small yellow hovering bee-like insects that could be a native wasp, or a bee. It's not them, as the SSB is dark.

A golden rule for placing the hive is to pick a spot and don't dare move it thereafter, not even a meter or so!! Mine will be placed on the morning sunlit wall outside, sheltered, and next to our pond fed by rainwater (overflow from the tank).

Also learned there are many native bees that are solitary and live in hollows, not hives. Who'd have thought?

Our aggressive stinging wpaper wasps - that I used to equally aggressively destroy on sight, due to their propensity to attack me as a child - are now a treasured resource, too. I watch them with delight as they hunt caterpillars on my summer veges. Go team wasp! For several years I have unwittingly sat beside a nest under the leaf of our verandah monstera d. - which finally taught me that they'll only attack if you directly disturb the nest. And, like bees, they fly right around you in the garden. They are most welcome.

Sorry, I've done it again. Back to you :0)

Jamie said...

You're right about the basil and lavender, Phil. They have kept countless bees happy.

And regarding those native bees: mine live in the cracks in old brickwork — and we have plenty of those — and I've seen them coming and going.

Glad to hear you've come to get on with your paper wasps. I can't convince those who hate them to change their minds, but my paper wasps and I have been mates for 25 years now. That doesn't mean "no stings" either. Just two in 25 years, and both times were my fault for sticking my stupid human hand in close proximity to their nest, which at the time I didn't see. However, co-existing with them out in the garden is easy. They're good garden citizens.

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