It goes without saying that someone like me, who blogs about gardening, gets a buzz out of working in the soil, growing things and being among plants. Therein lies the rub. On walks around my garden early mornings this week, there was a noticeable lack of buzz – that is, bees.
There were a few on the nasturtiums and on the blossom of the Indian hawthorne, some hovering around the abelia (honeysuckle) and callistemons, but none elsewhere. Nature is essentially about the birds and the bees, so felt somewhat unbalanced with my discovery.
I was on a search mission, having recently watched a disturbing film about the disappearing honey bees in the US, attributed to hive collapse Vanishing of the Bees. The cause is the use of pesticides in vast tracts of mono culture, which the bees are picking up when collecting pollen on sprayed crops, carrying back to their hives and infecting and distorting the tracking systems of the developing young bees there. Once these affected bees leave the hive, they can’t find their way back - and disappear.
In the millions.
The situation there is frightening because bees — beyond producing honey — are prime pollinators of roughly one-third of the crop species in the U.S., including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and livestock feed such as alfalfa and clover. Massive loss of honey bees could result in billions of dollars in agricultural losses. There are now not enough honey bees in the US to pollinate the orchards for food production, so they are importing bees from Australia.
It was a distressing story, not just for the plight of beekeepers whose livelihoods are being destroyed, but for the long term food production. If we don’t maintain and support good bee population, we cannot grow fruit and vegetables and will be mere producers of crops like wheat, oats, corn and rice. The rest we will have to import - that is, providing it’s available from countries who don’t need it to feed their own.
As for anyone who has experienced an “Oh sh#*” moment, it was a breathtaking realisation. It also had me thinking how and what I should plant to encourage and support bees in my patch. I had always thought where there were flowers, there were bees, so presumed the amount of colour and bloom in my garden indicated a healthy level of buzz. Until I really started to listen and watch. And having discovered that I am bee-deficient – and for that matter, bee-ignorant, I thought I’d bone up on them some.
We have 10 major groups of native bees in Australia – about 1500 species. They can be black, yellow, red, metallic green, even black with blue polka dots. They can be fat and furry or sleek and shiny. The smallest is the Cape York quasihesma bee, less than 2mm long and the largest is the Great Carpenter bee which can be 24mm.
Commercial honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to Australia. They were introduced from Europe about 1822.
Most Australian bees are solitary bees which raise their young in burrows in the ground or in tiny hollows in timber. The small black native honey bee, (Austroplebeia and Trigona) of which there are 10 species, are stingless. They live mostly in the warmer northern and eastern areas of the country.
They are brilliant in the garden and they produce honey. You can draw them in with things like rosemary, sage, asters, borage, goldenrod, thyme, mint chives, oregano, marjoram, black-eyed susans, lamb’s ears, granny’s bonnet (aquilegia vulgaris), zinnia, salvia and coleus and snowstorm (bacopa - Sutera cordata) – a little groundcover that never stops flowering – flowering fruit trees like apple, peach, avocado, orange and plum and flowering vegetables like pumpkin, melons, cucumber and squash. Stingless bee honey is a delicious bush food and stingless bees can be good crop pollinators, so they increase the security of food supply.
They like a diversity of bee-friendly flowers with large patches of each kind of flower. So to bring more into your garden, plant several of each type of plant close together rather than planting them singly or spread out. Plant flowers that bloom at different times so you have pollen and nectar sources during all the seasons. Leave dead branches for bees to colonise and allow weeds like dandelions and white clover to flower. You can pull them up before they go to seed. Place shallow pans of water about. Bees need to drink and bird baths are too deep.
The Australian native blue-banded bees (Amegilla) have distinctive glittering stripes of blue or whitish hair across their black abdomens. They are an especially efficient pollinator, as they perform a special ‘buzz pollination’ .
Where flowers hide their pollen inside tiny capsules, a blue-banded bee can grasp it and shiver her flight muscles, causing the pollen to shoot out of the capsule. She then collects the pollen for her nest and carries it from flower to flower, pollinating them as she goes.
Blue-banded bees will ensure any plant you grow in the tomato family – chilli, eggplant, capsicum and tomato – will set fruit, so they are a great asset in the food garden. And many Australian native flowers, such as hibbertia and senna, need buzz pollination to reproduce, so they are a vital part of our native bushland.
To lure the blue-banded bees, plant begonias, lavenders, abelias and antirrhinums (snapdragons – remember squeezing them to snap the dragon’s mouth?), Tradescantia pallida (purple hearts) and a tufted succulent Bulbine frutescens.
One native species - I know I have it because it leaves its calling card – the leaf cutter bee (Megachile), makes neat circular cuts in rose, buddleja and bauhinia leaves, where they have taken the material to build their nests.
Disturbingly – and this is what put the bee in my bonnet, so to speak, after watching the plight of the US hives – our bees to are susceptible to chemical pesticides applied within several hundred metres of their home and foraging environment.
Imidacloprid, an effective nerve poison, patented by Bayer Cropsciences, has been banned from sale and use in Holland, Germany and France and on Long Island USA, for its harmful effect on the bees, but is widely used elsewhere in the U.S. In Australia, it is used as a seed dressing (Gaucho) and as a foliar spray (Confidor) for control of red-legged earth mite and blue oat mite in canola crops.
Farmers claim its use has increased their yields by up to 74 per cent. The pressure to keep this high yield increases as the demand from Europe for bio-diesel, using Australian-grown canola, climbs. Australia was set this year to plant its biggest ever crop of canola - an increase of 10 percent on last year.
Imidacloprid is also used in flea and tick collars for dogs and cats, in solutions for termite control and across the counter treatment for everything from lawn grubs to azalea lace bugs, aphids and thrips.
Perhaps George Bernard Shaw was on the money when he said: ”Science never solves a problem without creating 10 more.”