All around the world, people are becoming more aware of the importance of pollinators and other bugs in keeping our gardens healthy and thriving. We are slowly realising that something has to change, and that the chemical fertilisers that we used to turn to as the best solution, may in fact be a huge part of the problem.
“If the bees disappear, we’ll all be stung.” – David Suzuki
More and more, we are also hearing about the decline of bees. This is due to a number of factors such as growing pesticide use, the spread of bee killing parasites such as Varroa Jacobsoni, and destruction of their natural habitat (which in turn leads to a lack of foraging plants), among other reasons. Our landscapes are rapidly changing, and when our flora is cleared to make room for housing estates, buildings, large-scale farms etc. – we need to ensure we counter this habitat loss, and one way we can do this is by how we choose to garden at home. Whether you’re in an urban or rural area – there are things you can do to help bees all year round. If we all pitch in, there is a chance we can help bees thrives once again.
Bee fact break – Eating local honey may increase your tolerance to common pollen allergies!
One of the best things we can do for bees is to grow our own food. By growing food at home, not only do we have control over the growing methods (for example we can grow organically and eliminate pesticide use), but bees will also help our food garden thrive as well as providing them with a food source.
“Bees are the best pollinators by far, and this is for a number of reasons. The first being bee design – they have hairy little bodies that are very efficient at picking up pollen.” – Doug Purdie wrote in his book “The Bee Friendly Garden”
However, we can’t just plant some vegetables and expect them to come. They need to be attracted to our garden, and we have a few tips to help your garden become a buzzing bee magnet!
Keep in mind that bees will fly up to 5 - 8kms to source their food – so that means you can establish plants in your yard for bees that are foraging from 5km away! You don’t need to have your own hive to attract bees. Adding a variety of bee friendly plants as well as a water source will make your garden a “go-to” destination for both native and honeybees. By attracting them to your garden you’ll also be helping to pollinate your plants and increase your veg patch yield!
Planting to attract bees!
One of my favourite lines is “think like a bee” – it’s an expression used by experienced beekeeper Doug Purdie – he’s on a mission to educate us about the importance of pollinators and what we can do to help. He encourages us all to put on our “bee goggles” and have a look around our gardens and neighbourhood – how many flowering plants are there? Could our gardens or even our neighbourhoods be lacking in pollinator food? I wear my bee goggles constantly now, and our garden has never been so abuzz with bees.
“You need a mix of flowering plants with different shaped flower heads to make a good pollinator garden.” – Doug Purdie wrote in his book “The Bee Friendly Garden”
So, what can you do?We can all support native and other bee populations by growing a variety of bee friendly plants in our garden. The key is to select plants that flower at different times of the year, so bees will have a constant food source. A lot of native bees aren’t out foraging in the middle of winter, but honey bees forage all year! So it’s important to plan your garden to have successive flowering throughout the seasons.
As well as selecting season specific blooms, it’s also good to plant a selection of flowering natives in addition to the usual favourites. This way you are supporting native bee populations that may only forage on specific native plants. Other native bees will forage on a mix of native and exotic plants. Another tip is to choose flowers in a variety of shapes. This is because some bees can only access particular flowers based on their shape – so having lots of varying flower heads and sizes ensures we are catering for the diversity of native bee species.
Bee fact break – The honey bee has been around for millions of years!
The good news is, no matter the size of your garden (small balconies and patios included), there is always room for one, or even a few flowering plants! What we are trying to eliminate are “pollinator deserts” – this is an area where there is absolutely no flowering plants for pollinators to forage on. A lack of flowering plants equals a lack of pollinators – there is no way for them to survive in this environment. However if every house in a “pollinator desert” planted just one flowering plant, then bees would have a steady supply of food. For those of you who live in an apartment block with small balconies or a shared roof space – why not chat to your neighbours about how you can all pitch in to help the bees? Perhaps you could buy in bulk and make a large saving. It’s certainly some “pollinator” food for thought.
We also sell a carefully selected pack of 'Bee Friendly Seeds' which you can purchase or simply find out more about by clicking on the image below!
Grow veggies and use the companion planting method. If you’re not sure what companion planting is, we explain a bit more about it further below! Don’t forget to let some of your veggies bolt. Bees LOVE those plants that are going to seed. So even if you let half the plant bolt and keep using the other half it’s a win-win. You are aiming for a diverse array of plants in your garden, because when bees range over a variety of different flowering plants they are stronger and healthier for it. The huge benefit to backyard growers, is that the more bees you entice into your garden, the more abundant your harvest will be, as so many fruits and vegetables require bees for pollination.
Fun Fact – When planning your pollinator garden, remember that bees prefer blue, purple and yellow flowers!
Now for the best part… what to plant?! Below is a list of flowering plants that bees & other pollinators will love! Your climate will determine what plants you should choose, so be sure to check what plants are appropriate for your area.
Herbs: Anise hyssop, basil, borage, catmint, chives, comfrey, coriander, dandelion (often misjudged as a weed), fennel, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, mint, monarda (common name bee balm or bergamot) mustard, nasturtiums, oregano, parsley, pineapple sage, rocket, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, yarrow
Exotic plants: Alyssum, aster, bacopa, butterfly bush, calendula, cornflower, cosmos, dahlias, daffodil, echinacea, echium, forget-me-not, foxglove, geranium, hollyhock, marigold, nemesia, poppy, Queen Anne’s Lace, roses, salvias, snapdragon, sunflowers, wisteria, zinnias
Australian natives: Banksia, bottlebrush (callistemon sp.), cut-leaf daisy (Brachyscome), eucalypts, flowering gums, grevilleas, hakea, Hardenburgia (also known as purple coral pea), lemon scented myrtle, melaleuca, native hibiscus, native rosemary, native violet, tea tree (leptospermum), Wattle (Acacia pycnantha)
Provide water and shelter
If you want to encourage all manner of pollinators to your garden, then along with plenty of flowers, you need a water source! For our bees, we fill our bird baths with river rocks so they can safely land and have a drink without drowning. On hot days there can be hundreds of bees at our pond or large bird baths – so be sure to locate it somewhere you feel is safe. You can also use a shallow dish or bowl filled with water and add twigs, pebbles or corks to provide a landing pad for bees and other insects. If you are seeing dead bees floating in the water – then you need to add more dry landing areas for them.
Bee shelters - Many native bees will find habitat in in a dead tree trunk, a mound of dirt or a pile of branches. So as nice as it is to have a tidy garden, it’s also great to leave the occasional pile of branches where they are and in turn encourage a natural home for our native bees. You can also try making a native bee hotel – we have found our bee home attracts mostly spiders and other bugs, not so much bees, but hey - spiders are great for the garden too!
We think it’s time to break up with pesticides! Or at the very least, reduce your reliance on them. Bees are negatively impacted by the use of pesticides, especially systemic neonicotimides that are often used in agriculture. The toxins remain in the soil for long periods and even if they don’t kill bees, they can impair their development and ability to find nectar.
Scarily, we seem to be continually finding out that products we thought were “safe”, are in fact, quite the opposite. Even fungicides that were considered safe for bees (based on the fact that they didn’t immediately die when foraging on flowers sprayed with them) have now been seen to have negative impacts on overall bee hive health.
“When bees take fungicide-infected pollen back to their nest, the result is a sicker population that’s more susceptible to fungal infections.” – Doug Purdie wrote in his book “The Bee Friendly Garden”
On a personal note, we have lost a whole beehive to a neighbour using a common, yet very toxic insecticide – so trust me when I say we have seen the devastating effects first hand. Our honeybees died by the thousands and there was nothing we could do to stop it. You need to be extremely experienced and cautious if choosing to use any type of pesticide, insecticide or other “cide” in your home or garden.
It might be time to ask yourself, are you using them out of habit or necessity? There are so many ways we can combat weeds - they can be pulled by hand, burnt or sprayed with vinegar (on paths – not garden beds), and many garden pests can be removed with natural methods or by companion planting to attract beneficial bugs. You are aiming for a diverse ecosystem in your backyard and companion planting along with other natural methods helps to promote this balance and often eliminates the need for any chemical intervention.
Now that I’ve mentioned companion planting a few times, I should probably explain a bit more about it for anyone who may be unfamiliar with the term. Companion planting is really all about restoring nature’s balance in our environment. The idea is that everything is connected and purposeful. Plants interact with each other and with the creatures around them in various ways, and companion planting is about harnessing this information and using it to our advantage. It helps us choose the right combination of plants to increase the chances of a productive and pest-free garden. For example: a particular plant like nasturtiums may attract predators that feast on them in preference to your cabbages, cauliflowers or broccoli etc. Planting a hedge of rosemary and lavender in your garden may repel sap-sucking pests and the flowers will attract predators like hoverflies. Also, planting clover can help cabbages by releasing nitrogen into the soil. The list is endless!
It’s also important to remember factors like weather, soil health, watering and your general garden design will have a big effect on the success of your garden – so you can’t rely solely on one method of gardening. If you want to learn more about the companion planting method, organic gardening and more, check out these wonderful resources in our shop –
Fun Fact – Attracting insects like ladybugs, spiders, and praying mantises to your garden can help to keep pest populations in check!
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that certain “weeds” may not be such horrible plants to have around after all! Often a self-sown plant is growing in the exact environment it is supposed to. For example dandelions make a wonderful food source for bees and also earthworms like to live around dandelion roots. And for us – delicious dandelion tea anyone? The idea is, don’t be too quick to rip out every “weed”– think about whether it is serving another purpose you may not have thought of. Often our so-called weeds have an important role to play.
I already have a bee friendly garden, what else can I do to help?
Try your hand at becoming a beekeeper!
We decided to keep bees because we became more and more aware of the declining bee populations around the world, and knowing the importance of bees in our food systems and the crucial role that our honey bees can play in pollinating crops and gardens – we wanted to help in some small way.
We highly recommend visiting your local bee club, an experienced beekeeper, or attending a beginner’s course on beekeeping. It’s not something to venture into lightly – there is quite a bit involved in setting up your hive, knowing the warning signs to look for if your hive is threatened by illness or pests, safely cleaning your materials and much more. As fun as it is to put on a bee suit and look inside a beehive (not to mention tasting your own backyard honey!), it’s also a bit of work, especially in the warmer seasons. Rewarding work, but work nonetheless!
Bee fact break – The average worker bee produces only about 1/12th teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
We agree that honey is a great incentive to keep bees, but first and foremost your bees need their honey to survive (and now you know just how hard they have worked for it!) – so it’s important to always leave them with more honey than you think they will need. We haven’t harvested any honey from our hive this year as it’s been a slow season and we want them to get through winter comfortably. We may even skip a harvest for a couple of years. By doing this we should find ourselves with a very happy and healthy hive come spring/summer.
If you love honey but don’t want to keep bees – buy from a local beekeeper! The big supermarket brands may not be as sweet as you think, and we now know that some of the honey sold may not even be Australian honey. Also, eating local honey may also increase your tolerance to common pollen allergies.
Share your bee knowledge around!
One of the best things we can all do, is simply to talk about bees! Some friends of ours were surprised to hear that bees actually drink water – and have since added water sources for bees into their garden. Their neighbours over the fence asked them why they were putting rocks in their bird bath and they explained it was for the bees, they then proceeded to point out the many bees coming to have a drink, and their neighbour obviously loved the idea, because they topped up their bird bath with fresh water when my friends were away on holidays. This is what it’s all about - the more people we share our knowledge with, the more our gardens, and in turn our pollinators, will thrive.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
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