An important element of my Healing Garden concept is to incorporate areas that will attract and nurture native bees and other pollinators. Here at Green Tree, we've been intentionally planting for them since 2012 and in this blog I share my knowledge and tips on creating a successful bee garden. However our garden obviously doesn't just attract bees. What we've planted is actually a habitat garden and although you may start off with 'bee intentions' you'll quickly see that it blossoms into much more than that.
(ABOVE: male Blue Banded bees roosting on weedy stem)
Why do we want to attract native bees into our gardens?
Native bees and other pollinators are a vital cog that unites the ecological web in our gardens, keeping them healthy and productive. They improve the pollination and yield of all food crops we grow and can provide endless hours of fascination watching them in our flowers and nesting in our bee hotels.
However, the most important reason to care for them is for species conservation. Before all of our gardens and homes existed, the land they're on used to be a thriving, diverse ecosystem. The land can become this again with intelligent gardening (guardianship). And through this land stewardship role we have the opportunity to play a significant role in the health of our backyard mini ecosystem and contribute towards species conservation of endemic fauna.
Imagine the difference if an entire street, or town, or suburb, or city were to follow these guidelines! Never underestimate the impact and importance of your individual efforts. Individually, collectively, we can heal the planet - one garden at a time. Think Global - Act Local begins in our backyards.
(ABOVE: Lassioglossum bees roosting in my calendula flowers)
Build it and they will come? You bet!
It's important to point out at this stage that you don't need acreage to care for native bees. No matter what size garden you have - from a small courtyard to farm - you have the opportunity to provide the bees needs in your patch and create a healthier mini ecosystem.
We purchased our 5 acres in 2005 as paddocks with mature trees. After owner building an eco home we began to garden in 2009 and our intention from the very beginning was to bring this land back to functioning as a diverse, healthy ecosystem that nourishes and sustains the life of all endemic fauna. Initially we noticed the influx of birds, lizards, frogs and honeybees. And it was early 2012 that we discovered the native bees in our patch.
The Bees Needs
To nurture native bees we need to understand their basic needs; and they are food, water and shelter to survive. However in my talks and workshops, I always say we need to go one step further to ensure they not only survive in our patch, but absolutely thrive... and that is to love them. We all need to feel loved to thrive.
(From paddocks to paradise ... our patch)
Let's start with Shelter...
Solitary native bees don't live in a hive or produce honey like the honey bee, nor do they have the social structure of queen, drones, worker bees etc. Every female is fertile and will want to mate and create her own nest. They will either nest in cavities or in the ground.
Ground nesting bees need bare dirt in our backyard. Somewhere that's not paved, mulched heavily, planted, a driveway, lawn etc. This bare patch of dirt can't be walked over repetitively or inundated with water in winter. Maybe the back corners of your block? There are more ground nesting bees in Australia than cavity nesting, therefore this is an important element to your bee habitat garden.
(Euryglossa rubricata male - a ground nesting bee)
We can easily replicate the requirements of cavity nesting bees by building Bee Hotels. I've already written a great blog on how to do this. Just look for the "How to Build a Bee Hotel" in my blog section. Once you have created your hotel you need to position it in the right place in your garden.
Our hotels are placed in different spots around the garden and under our verandah on the north side.
I recommend you position them so they'll be sheltered from the hot midday & afternoon sun and from high winds, such as close to a building or under a shady tree. Face the opening east or north east, at least a metre off the ground (no higher than 2.5m)
Ensure there is no vegetation in front of it obscuring the entrances to the tunnels.
Once a bee begins to nest - DO NOT MOVE IT - she can get easily confused and search for it endlessly.
(ABOVE: just one of the many Bee Hotel designs in our garden)
Add some scrumptious bee food.....
(ABOVE: our Leucospermum cordifoliums in full bloom with purple convolvulus ground cover)
Food is simply flowers! Bees eat two things: nectar & pollen. However, one of the most important things to discuss initially is the difference between generalist and specialist foraging native bees. Understanding this difference ensures we choose a complete floral banquet for all types of native bee species.
Some of the more common native bees we see across Australia are generalist feeders, just like the honey bee. This means they can come into any garden with any flowers on offer and be capable of feeding and collecting the nectar and pollen for nesting requirements. An example is the much loved Blue Banded Bee, who happily pollinates my tomatoes, lavender, borage, catmint as well as my native Flax Lily flowers. These generalist foragers can thrive in the more built up areas due to this dietary flexibility. Many "plant these to feed the bees" lists that are abundant across the internet are targeting generalist feeding bees and will attract abundant honey bees into your garden.
(a male Amegilla species on Agapanthus flowers - generalist forager)
There are many species though that are specialist foragers and this means that the flowers they require a highly specific and they're incapable of feeding on any other flower or using their pollen/nectar in their nests. In our garden, the first native bee to emerge out of the ground in very early spring are a Trichocolletes species (pictured below) and they emerge when our multiple Native Wisteria (Hardenbergia) climbers are in mass flower. They only feed on these native pea flowers and nothing else.
(Trichocolletes species feeding on native wisteria - specialist forager)
A few weeks later another Trichocolletes species (pictured below) emerges when our Pea Vine and Heart-leaf Flame Pea shrubs are in full bloom. Again they only forage on the pea flowers and once these plants have finished flowering, the bees are no longer in my garden. Their whole life cycle revolves around the flowering of these native fabaceae flowers. This example clearly illustrates how selective these specialist forager diets can be and if we didn't provide these flowers in our garden, then we wouldn't have a complete floral banquet to support the diversity of endemic bees in our area. These are the bees that are most vulnerable to habitat loss and habitat degradation.
(Trichocolletes species in our Chorizema cordatum - specialist forager)
One of the easiest ways to ensure you're providing for the specialist foragers (and generalists) is to plant native plants that are endemic to your area. This is what we have done and below I've listed the genus of the shrubs, climbers and groundcovers that we've introduced to our garden. I would encourage you to visit native plant nurseries or community nurseries to discuss what species within these genus (or others) occur in your area and receive their expert advice.
And my biggest tip is to look at their flowering times and select from the variety of genus to provide diverse flowers in your garden all year round, with overlapping flowering times to ensure there is a constant supply of food for all. And definitely include native pea plants!
(post edit - i've created further blogs detailing the specific species and what is flowering in our patch for the indigenous seasons)
Native shrubs/climbers/groundcover genus to fit in any size backyard:
hakea, melaleuca, grevillea, verticordia, banksia, leptospermum, westringia, kunzea, hypocalymma, boronia, templetonia, hardenbergia, scaevola, hibbertia, kennedia, clematis, jacksonia, eutaxia, hemiandra, eremophila, dianella, dampiera, callistemon, brachycombe, acacia, correa, myoporum, thryptomene, leschenaultia,
When we purchased our property we were blessed to inherit trees that had been planted about 45 years prior. They provide overlapping flowering times throughout the year. If you have space in your garden for a tree - even a small one - I would highly encourage you do as they bring in abundant bees. In Western Australia the red flowering gum trees (Corymbia ficifolia) and the Long flowered Marlock (Eucalyptus macrandra) flower abundantly over the warmer months when the bees are nesting. We have added many more species to our original list and currently have:
Native trees (only some endemic) on our property
tuarts, tea trees, marri, karri, spotted gum, eucalyptus macrandra, lemon scented gum, fuschia gum, honey myrtle, mahogany, swamp gum, silky oak grevillea, golden gum, gungurru, silver princess, cedar wattle, blackwood wattle, black wattle (weed), rottnest pine, coastal moort, lilly pilly, jacaranda, red-flowering gum.
(Silver Princess gum tree)
Ok, so now I've listed the most important plants to choose from first, now let's look at how other flowering plants in our gardens can not only feed the generalist foragering bees but also attract, provide shelter, food and harbour beneficial insects. Introducing..Insectary Gardens
I'm a huge fan of insectary gardens which are a form of “companion planting” based on the positive effects plants can share as a method of deterring pests, acquiring nutrients or attracting natural predators. By becoming more diverse with your plantings, you are providing habitat, shelter, and alternative food source, such as pollen and nectar, something many predators need as part of their diet. The more diverse our insect species are in our backyards, the more we are allowing nature to take its course with the 'good' insects controlling the 'pest' insects - offering us a safer, natural alternative to pesticides.
(ABOVE: our mixture of sages, sedums, scaevolas, agastache and cosmos)
Your insectary garden will not only attract some native bees and honey bees but also butterflies, various other pollinators (wasps, flies and beetles) as well as predatory insects such as hoverflies, tachinid flies, ladybirds, lacewings, praying mantis, ichneumon wasps, parasitic wasps, beneficial mites, beetles, robber flies, and spiders.
(Spotted Jezebel butterfly on our Agapanthus flowers)
An insectary garden creates a wonderful balance of the three categories of beneficial insects you want to attract to your garden - predators, parasitoids and pollinators. Predators eat other insects while parasitoids use pest insects as hosts for their eggs and larvae. The pollinators - our glorious bees - facilitate pollination so plants can produce fruits, vegetables and seeds.
(a male Scorpionfly holding a stink bug offering to attract a mate)
By nurturing your insect communities (and holding back on the natural or chemical pesticides), we are allowing the natural food chains in the web of life to thrive in our gardens. We have not only seen an amazing myriad of insects arrive since beginning this style of gardening, but also had a surge in all insectivorous birds, lizards, frogs and more.
Tips for a successful Insectary Garden;
In our garden the native bees are cold blooded and emerge like the lizards in Spring and continue to forage and nest through to mid autumn. Therefore your garden needs abundant flowers throughout these months to provide for them and flowering all year round to sustain the life of all the other insects and fauna.
Plants should be of varying size and height to provide shelter for insects in different niches
It should be a long term and permanent feature of the garden - lots of perennials
Densely planted and interconnected by plants with little disturbance
(ABOVE: california poppies, globe artichokes, lemon balm, borage, native hibiscus, correa and more)
Provides small flowers for parasitoids (insect parasites), hover flies, wasps and robber flies
Provides large and long flowers for butterflies and larger bees
Provides sturdy herbaceous shrubs for mantids to lay their egg casings against
Bees have great colour vision — that's why flowers are so showy! They especially like blue, purple, violet, white and yellow. Plant flowers of a single species in clumps about four feet in diameter instead of in scatterings so bees are more likely to find them.
(ABOVE: anise hyssop and white cosmos)
Avoid hybrids - they may look pretty but they lack food
Bee species all have different tongue lengths, so a variety of flower shapes is best. Include umbels (like fennel and spring onion flowers) & composites (like the daisy family).
(ABOVE: flowering spring onions)
Plant lots of herbs (says the naturopath!). One of the most exciting things I've discovered over the last few years is that many of the medicinal herbs I grow attract native bees and all sorts of beneficial insects into my garden. Not only can you pick these to make delicious, nourishing herbal teas but they're also a great food source for generalist foraging bees. They all contain highly nutritious resin, pollen and nectar and I call them 'superfoods’ for bees. You must allow them all to flower! Including: borage, mint, hyssop, anise hyssop, lavender, dill, fennel, oregano, thymes, sage, calendula, chamomile, california poppies, Italian parsley, bacopa, rosemary, lemon balm, yarrow, comfrey, chives, elder, echinacea, basil, queen anne's lace.
(ABOVE: native bee resting on chamomile flower)
(a honey bee at the top and native Amegilla species enjoying my echinacea flowers)
Allow some of your veggies like over-wintered brassicas and lettuce to go to flower
Non-natives you can include: abelia, buddleja, cornflowers, roses, salvias, agastaches, sedums, non-invasive purple lantana, pink diosma, viburnums, echiums, california lilac, purple convolvulus ground cover & anything from the Daisy family - sunflowers, calendula, chamomile, cosmos, erigeron, African daisy, marguerites, anthemis.
(ABOVE: Megachile species roosting in daisy flower)
Phew! That's a huge list! I'm sure from that you can begin to visualise the ones that would work best for your space. Whatever the size of your land, I recommend you aim to dedicate half towards habitat.
Add a splash of water...
All habitat gardens must have a water source. We put some birdbaths at ground level to act as an 'all inclusive' watering hole for skinks, bandicoots, lizards and more. Honey bees and other beneficial insects — ladybugs, butterflies, and predatory wasps — need fresh water to drink but most can't land in a conventional bird bath without crashing. They need islands in the water to touch down on or they can easily drown. Refresh the water daily.
Simply make a Bee Bath by piling rocks in your bird baths or line a shallow bowl with rocks or pebbles or marbles. Add water, but leave the rocks as dry islands to serve as landing pads. Place the bath less than a metre high in your garden. (Put it near "problem plants" — those that get aphids, for example — and the beneficial insects that come to drink will look after them.)
(ABOVE: a large deep glass bowl filled with rocks as landing pads and fresh water)
And lastly - and most importantly - is the Love!
Now you can take this to whatever extreme you like... I'm often found talking to the bees and giving them my thanks & gratitude for their free pollination services. And many evenings I'll say goodnight to the little male bees roosting overnight in my calendula flowers. How cute are they!
However, if you prefer to keep the love simple... then just reassess your need for all biocides in your garden - pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and rodenticides. No garden can really thrive when we are applying chemicals that upset the ecological web of life, – natural or chemical.
One pesticide that is being banned around the world (not in Australia yet) are the Neonicotinoids. These are very effective at killing insects when sprayed on plants because the whole plant, including the pollen and nectar becomes poisoned. It is a systemic neurotoxin and if it doesn't kill the bees directly, it weakens the nervous system. The poison is taken back within the food and stored inside the nest for the young to feed on when hatched. All Neonics are easily accessible and are sold in all hardware store and even supermarkets. Check labels, it will often carry the warning ''will kill bees''.
Look for these ingredients to know if the product contains Neonics:
Imidacloprid: Foliar spray for turf and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs; soil drench for garden fruits and vegetables, and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs; trunk injection for trees; granules for turf and ornamental flowers, shrubs, or trees.
Clothianidin: Granules for turf, and ornamental flowers, shrubs, or trees.
Thiamethoxam: Foliar spray for turf and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs; granules for turf and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs.
Acetamiprid: Foliar spray for garden fruits and vegetables, and ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs
Dinotefuran: Granules for turf and ornamental flowers, shrubs or trees; soil drench for ornamental flowers, trees, and shrubs.
Some say that Sulfoxaflor is also a neonicotinoid
REMEMBER: 999 OUT OF 1000 INSECTS ARE ACTUALLY BENEFICIAL OR HARMLESS.
Do you really need to spray (and this includes homemade organic sprays), or can you wait for the natural predators to come in and do what they do best?
(ABOVE: Megachile species leafcutter bee next to the tiny Reed bee)
We can all play a significant role in the health of our backyard mini ecosystem. Like I mentioned previously - imagine the difference if an entire street, or town, or suburb, or city were to follow these guidelines! Never underestimate the impact and importance of your individual efforts. Individually, collectively, we can heal the planet - one garden at a time.
Contact me if you would like me to come and present a Native Bee & Bee Friendly Garden Talk in your area firstname.lastname@example.org
Green Tree Blessings x