There are a dozen reasons why you should care about bees, and even more so if you’re an avid gardener.
These small but critical creatures play a vital role in our lives; in fact, ‘an estimated one third of the food we eat on a daily basis is dependent on pollinators – mainly bees,’ says Helia Smit, horticulturist at Cape Gardens.
They’re integral to crop production in South Africa, with the honey bee being a key pollinator for apples, pears, citrus and other fruit that make up our major export market. ‘Bees are an integral part of the environment and very much interconnected with our diverse ecosystems and the landscape,’ says Dr Tlou Masehela, scientist at SANBI and chairman of the Western Cape Bee Industry Association. ‘In most areas, bees have evolved with the landscape and vegetation over many years, creating a solid mutual relationship when it comes to supporting the overall growth and natural progression of the respective trees, flowers, and other plants in that landscape.’
They also do a world of good in regulating the ecosystem in your garden by pollinating your flowers and keeping unwanted critters at bay. Our gardens are communal, we share it with a host of creatures. And though we may not get on with some of the critters that move in, like aphids and snails, bees are the good guys that bring flower beds and veggie patches to life as they buzz about foraging for food. ‘There are thousands of bee species’, says Dr Masehela, and generally they fall into three categories: honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees that live in nooks and crannies around the garden. Your home garden can provide a safe haven for wild bees, and you will benefit all the more if you make it a nurturing environment.
Research suggests that the declining bee population is attributed to environmental challenges such as change and destruction of habitats, loss of floral resources, pesticide use, pests, diseases and climate change. So if you’re a gardener who wants to attract bees, you’ll need to do the opposite.
If you’re going to set your garden abuzz, you’ll need to keep these five things in mind, says Dr Masehela:
- A bee-friendly environment needs to be healthy and pollutant-free.
- Be sure to include a diverse group of bee-friendly plants/flowers to cover more than one season.
- Make a water source accessible.
- Offer different nesting/habitat sites.
- Avoid unnecessary spraying of chemicals (herbicides and insecticides) in and around the area, especially if you are not sure of the impact on bees. Use natural methods instead.
PLANNING YOUR BEE-FRIENDLY LANDSCAPE
Unlike the way we might amble through a garden, bees enter and buzz through with a sense of purpose: to find food. You’ll do good to choose plants and a layout that allow them to easily get what they need.
VARIETY IS KEY
The more varied your space, the more attractive it will be to a number of pollinators. ‘A diet consisting of pollen from different plants is better than a diet made up of a single pollen source,’ says Helia. ‘Different pollen sources also increase bee immunity, so plant a variety of flowering plants that bees love.’ Aim for a landscape layered with trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and ground covers. It’s a good idea to plant flowers in blocks or swathes to maximise their useful impact for bees. Although there are no concrete rules about what exactly to plant (although water-wise and indigenous are always best), opt for flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar. This usually means choosing single or open flowers with just one layer of petals that bees can easily access for nectar. Flowers with petal-packed flower heads may be pretty to look at but they don’t have much nectar or pollen for bees. Some great options are echinacea, Cape honeysuckle, gazanias and agapanthus.
GET ALL SEASONS
Choose a mix of flowers, trees and shrubs that you can plant in succession that bloom throughout the year in various seasons. So you’ll have a banquet available for your bees all year round.
If you have a lawn, let it go every once in a while or in specific corners, enabling low-growing lawn fl owers such as daisies to grow. Tabby Robertshaw, beekeeper and owner of Good Luck Cottage in Stanford, adds that bees actually dislike the sound and smell of grass being cut, so it’s best to use alternative ground covers such as clover, daisy lawn, chamomile, gazania dymondia or vygies if you are in the beginning stages of planning a garden.
FLOWERS AND FRUIT
You can also include flowers in your veggie patch at the end of the beds or along the margins. We love to plant them between crops too as companion plants.
SOMETHING TO DRINK
Make sure that you include a source of water in the bees’ path. A small bird bath with fl at stones for landing and perching will work well. Bees will drown if they land in water too deep, so help them be as comfortable as possible.
WHAT FLOWERS SHOULD YOU PLANT?
Helia has a few tips for selecting flowers:
- Plant yellow, white, blue and purple flowers, which tend to attract bees more than pinks, oranges and reds.
- Don’t only focus on the ornamental flowering plants – herbs, vegetables and fruit serve double the purpose.
- Great herbs are sweet basil, bergamot, catmint, French thyme, lemon balm, borage, mint, cotton lavender and lavender.
- For flowering fruit and veg, consider berries, melons, squash and cherry trees, which will keep bees happy while providing food for you and your family.
- Indigenous plants are always best so consider aloes, erica, protea and vygies.
- If you’re looking for water-wiseoptions, think lavender, Rosmarinus, Salvia leucantha, Melaleuca and buchu.
- Other beautiful additions include: Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), Chinese jasmine (Jasminum polyanthum), Murraya exotica (Orange jasmine) and Acacia and Karee trees.
- Dr Masehela suggests visiting your local nursery for plant recommendations best suited to your region and soil.
BEES ARE MISUNDERSTOOD
‘Bees are only aggressive if they feel threatened,’ says Tabby Robertshaw, beekeeper and owner of Good Luck Cottage in Stanford. They may be curious, especially if you are wearing perfume, and might buzz around your face to get a better look at you. But if you approach a hive, they usually give you a few warning bumps to tell you to back off before launching a full-blown attack.‘ When you understand them and respect their space, they’ll respect yours. So why not swap a day of people watching for bee watching in your garden so you can learn more about them, and maybe you’ll get to snap a couple of bums sticking out of the flowers on your very own site.
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