Honeybees are an incredibly important part of the wildlife present in our gardens. They are responsible for pollinating approximately a third of all our food plants and if we are lucky enough to keep a hive they also reward us with honey and beeswax. Honeybees are smaller than bumble bees and they live for approximately 6 to 7 weeks during summer. In their busy lives they may visit 100 flowers per trip out of the hive. It takes the nectar of 2 million flowers to make a large jar of honey. Bees are currently facing various threats from pests and diseases worldwide, if you have the time and interest in keeping a hive in your garden then you can play a very useful part in boosting their numbers. If you aren’t interested in keeping a hive then attracting bees into your garden with flowering plants can still be of benefit to the bees and to your food crops.
A hive of bees contains one queen and a colony of female worker bees and, during summer, male drones. Hives are most active during spring and summer when colony numbers soar from 10,000 or 15,000 to 50,000 or 60,000. This is the most productive time when honey is produced. At the end of summer, numbers dwindle and honey is stored for consumption over winter. Through winter, the remaining workers huddle around the queen to keep her warm. In spring she starts laying again – between 1,000 and 2,000 eggs per day – and the hive swings into action once more.
Bumble bees are, like honeybees, useful pollinators. They make small hives, containing 300 to 500 bees, in hollows in trees and in the ground where they tend to their young larvae. They are fairly docile and will only sting if provoked or they feel their hive is threatened. Bumble bees are larger than honeybees, between half and three quarters of an inch long. They are very hairy and robust-looking with black and yellow bands on their abdomen. Bumble bees do not store anything like the quantity of honey that honeybees do and so are not reared by humans. They are encouraged because of their beneficial pollination and because they are becoming increasingly threatened in the wild due to over-use of chemical pesticides. Our chemical-free gardens are very important habitat for them. In autumn, queens leave the hive and seek dry shelter – often turning up in garages and garden sheds. The remaining bees in the hive die at onset of winter. In spring, the queen will leave her place shelter to set off in search of a good place to start a new hive.
Avoid using any chemical pest controls and weed killers in your garden. This is essential as all bees are susceptible to the damaging effects of these chemicals. New types of pesticides – called neo-nicotinoids – are a key suspect in the rapid decline of bee colonies worldwide.
Native trees such as Manuka, Pohutukawa, Rata and Cabbage tree are all popular with bees. Flowering shrubs and garden plants draw bees into our gardens as they search for nectar. Choosing heirloom varieties is preferable to modern crossed/hybridized varieties that can have low nectar and pollen levels. Plant or sow the following amongst your food plants and you should find bees visiting your garden on a regular basis through spring and summer.
Alyssum, Basil, Bee balm, Borage, Cleome, Cornflower, Lupin, Marjoram, Mint, Poppy, Rosemary, Roses, Sage, Scabious, Sunflower, Thyme.
Be tolerant of dandelions and white clover in meadows and grassy areas as these are very popular with bees too.