It’s Bee Awareness Month here in New Zealand and the Great Kiwi Bee Count is in progress, so fittingly this month’s mini-series is all about the bees. We’re working to create our own bee-friendly garden (see our bee-ginners bee-friendly gardening lessons learned for details). This month, we’ll be posting about planting bee-friendly gardens, creating a bee-friendly environment, controlling pests with bee safety in mind, and tips for safely sharing your garden space with bees.
Planting Nectar Rich Flowers as Food Sources
Bees love nectar rich flowers, and are naturally drawn to flowers that produce high amounts of nectar and pollen. Although both are useful, like most of us, they’re drawn to the sweet stuff! I’ve also spotted the cheeky rascals guzzling sweet juice from garden fruits! You can read more about the whole food diet of bees in this fascinating article from Knowable Magazine.
Nectar (the raw ingredient of honey) is a sugary solution produced by flowers to lure pollinators, including our beloved bees. Nectar gives bees energy to fly and work. Some plants are inherently more abundant than others, but environmental conditions such as temperature, soil, aspect, and more can also affect nectar levels. See our idea sheet on plants for bees, birds and butterflies for inspiration.
Choosing Bee-Friendly Flower Shapes
Collecting nectar is hard work! Bees favour flowers with easy access, such as open-faced or bowl shaped blooms, especially honeybees who have short tongues.
Don’t let that dissuade you from including a few bell-shapes though. Some varieties of bumblebees actually quite enjoy drinking from bells and tubes as their long tongues give great access. I’ve also watched bumblebees pierce the base of a tube or bell-shaped flower as a sneaky shortcut to snack time. Cheeky bees! Heavily layered or ruffled blooms are pretty to look at, but are much less attractive as food sources. Their petals make it difficult for bees to get to the nectar and pollen in the middle.
Favourite Flower Colours for Foraging Bees
Interestingly, bees are most drawn to yellow, blue, purple, and white flowers. If any of those work in your garden scheme, consider adding some for the bees. Bees share our trichromatic vision, but instead of red, blue, green their range is ultra violet, blue, green. This doesn’t mean that bees don’t visit flowers that appear (at least to us) as other shades, working on ultra violet appearance and scent. Still, it’s extra bee-friendly to serve up a selection of their favourite colourful floral dishes.
Mass Planting Bee Buffets
Consider including mass plantings or groupings. Foraging bees typically visit only one species at a time. Mass plantings, clump plantings, or repeating the same plants around different sections of your garden helps provide an ample supply.
Planting for the Seasons
Keep the bee buffet open as long as your local weather conditions will allow by planting for the seasons. This will benefit the bees, but is also great for creating seasonal interest in your landscaping. Bonus for brightening dreary winter days if you are lucky enough to enjoy year-round gardening.
Depending on where you live and the local varieties of bees, there may be different foraging bees active at different times of year. Fortunately for us here in New Zealand, with careful plant selection, in most areas of the country we can have flowers all year round. The buffet is always open here.
Bee-Ware of Potentially Toxic Plants
As noted in our post on gardening for bees, birds, and butterflies, source new plants with case. You wouldn’t want to inadvertently add “bee-friendly” plants harbouring harmful systemic pesticides.
Random tidbit: Did you know that some plants have toxic nectars or pollen which can be harmful to bees? Potential hazards include common flowers such as rhododendrons, azaleas, etc. These are prolific where we live, including both gardens and naturalised into the general environment. I assume that the bees must have some natural wariness. Any bee gurus out there know the answer?
Plant for the Pests to Spare the Sprays
Planting disease and pest-resistant plants and using companion planting can help reduce the need for preventative and corrective controls in your garden which may be harmful to visiting bees. We’ll share more about safely controlling garden pests in part three of this mini-series later in the month.