Un-bee-lievable Bees

Winter 2016, Living Well Magazine

by Mascha Florisson and Wendy Neagle

Unless you have a spoonful of honey in your mouth, you wouldn’t normally think of bees while you are eating. But did you know that the equivalent of one in every three bites of food you eat is with thanks to a bee? Out of the 100 most eaten food crops in the world 70 are pollinated by bees, and without bees to pollinate them, crops such as apples, almonds, blueberries, avocados, pumpkins, cucumber, onions, grapefruit, oranges and cherries would almost certainly disappear.

Aerodynamically the Bumblebee should not be able to fly, but the Bumblebee doesn’t know this so it keeps on flying anyway.

We are all familiar with the European Honeybee which was introduced to Australia almost 200 years ago. But did you know we also have over 1,700 species of native bees in Australia? They range in size from 2mm for the Quasihesma bee (the world’s smallest bee) found in Cape York, to 24mm long for the Great Carpenter bee found in Queensland and Northern NSW. Native bees can be either fat and furry or sleek and shiny and range in color from yellow, black, red, metallic blue or green, or even black with blue polka dots or stripes! Most are solitary and live in underground burrows, in gaps in the mortar of brick walls, or tiny holes in timber. Although not as efficient in pollinating our food crops as the Honeybee, native bees are responsible for pollinating many of our native plants, which also provide habitat and food for other insect pollinators.

Our favourite native bee is the Blue Banded bee, which often visits the herb garden at the Yarra Valley Living Centre and has a preference for the purple and blue flowers of lavender, sage and borage. This chubby little solitary bee, which seems to defy gravity, most likely lives in the gaps of our mud brick buildings or a mud burrow on an embankment in the garden. We also see Blue Banded bees in the vegetable garden poly-tunnel where their ability to “buzz pollinate” make them great pollinators of our tomato plants.

In Australia we are lucky to have the healthiest population of Honeybee’s left in the world. With pesticide use, habitat loss and parasites and viruses putting a great strain on bee populations around the world there is lots you can do to help the survival of bees. One way is to purchase organically grown fruit and vegetables and thereby support pesticide free farming. You can also become a beekeeper yourself and learn more about these amazing insects or support your local organic beekeeper by purchasing local honey.

Aim to have lots of diversity and something flowering all year round, so there is a continual source of food. This is a great way to keep bees in your garden year round.  While bees like blues and purples and some plants are more attractive to bees than others, all have their value and will be visited by different pollinating insects. Some examples of plants popular with bees are lavender, alyssum, calendula, zinnia, phacelia, echinacea, sedum, geranium, salvia, penstemon, foxglove, daisies and herbs such as borage, oregano, fennel, rosemary, sage, thyme, lemon balm and mint.

Providing a dish of water for bees filled with pebbles, sand or even marbles can provide a safe landing place for them to drink, as water is also part of providing a healthy habitat for bees and insects.

Another way to help native bees and other beneficial insects is to make an insect hotel. Insect hotels are spaces for insects and native bees to nest, find safety over winter and reproduce, which ensures the population continuity for the next season. These ‘hotels’ can be as simple as some bamboo tubes bundled together and popped under a shelter, or more complex creations/structures with a large diversity of tubes, bricks and wood forming gaps with differing sizes, holes and spaces. Insect hotels are fun to make, and you can get quite creative with your design.

So next time you are wandering around your garden, take the time to see which bees and insects call your place home… and make them feel welcome!

“The hum of bees is the voice of the garden.” 
– Elizabeth Lawrence