Feeding the bees

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Worried by a lack of bees in your garden? You should be for it is the bees and bumblebees that pollinate most of our fruit, nuts, vegetables and flowers but if New Zealand follows northern hemisphere trends these busy little workers are at risk – and so are our crops, whether domestic or commercial.

Bill and Elizabeth Rae, who have a kiwifruit orchard north of Katikati, have been following news stories and research on the threats to bees in Britain and the United States and are working to try and stop a decline in bee numbers here. They are members of the Bee Group within the Bay of Plenty Tree Crops Association – motto Bee Wise – and have compiled information and planting lists for gardeners.

Alnus

Alnus jorullensis (Mexican alder) flowers in winter in the Western Bay of Plenty and is attractive to bees. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“There seems to be a lot of information for the commercial growers and not a lot for the home gardener, either on useful plants or the use of chemical sprays,” says Bill, a trained botanist and former teacher at Katikati College.

“Spraying on roadsides and under kiwifruit vines takes away flowering weeds, monocultural cropping takes away the diversity of pollen bees seem to need to stay healthy, and home gardeners aren’t necessarily planting to support bees, especially these so-called easy-care gardens with lots of stones.”

Research is showing that the decline in bee numbers may be down to reduced plant diversity – those with access to pollen from a range of plants had healthier immune systems, French scientists have found – while another European study in 2008 showed that bee numbers were declining in step with a reduction in wild flowers.

In 2010 the French government announced a project to sow nectar-rich flowers by roadsides, while the previous year the British government pledged ₤10 million to research ways to halt the decline in pollinators, including bees and butterflies.

“There’s a general concern around the world about the decline in bee numbers,” Bill says, “and being orchardists ourselves we’ve heard a lot about being careful with the bees that are brought in for pollination.”

bees-banksia

If you have the space, banksia shrubs and trees are winter flowering and also attract nectar-eating birds. Photo: Sandra Simpson

In their own home orchard and vege garden Elizabeth sows mesclun salad plants and basil and encourages them to bolt to flower for the bees. “I’ve got lots of nepeta [catnip], borage, thyme and lavender that bees like, and corydalis flowers for a long time and is always covered in bees.”

She suggests an area planted in perennial wallflowers (erysimum) will help bee-food shortages from spring through to midwinter, and notes that so-called lawn weeds are of great value too – self-heal, clover and daisies. “I mow the lawn in areas now,” Bill says, “so there’s always something flowering in the grass for the bees.”

Good winter sources of nectar, according to Bill, are two weedy plants – gorse and mangrove, “perhaps worth considering when you say mangroves are useless”, he says. Other useful bee food includes conifers that, ironically, don’t need bees for pollination.

The Bee Group has made its information available to the Bay of Plenty Regional Council and it is posted on the Tree Crops Association website. See also the Trees for Bees website (includes a North Island and South Island planting guide).

USEFUL BEE PLANTS:
Winter: Puriri (flowers off and on all year), casimiroa, hazel trees, hardenbergia, rocket.
Spring: Puka, maples, apple trees, ajuga, rosemary.
Summer: Lancewood, tupelo, citrus trees, alyssum, mock orange.
Autumn: Houhere, viburnum, zinnia, echinacea, fuchsia.

bees-quarry

A bee and a monarch butterfly are finding winter food in an aloe flower. Photo: Sandra Simpson

This article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.