Last month I met a neighbour who wanted to start beekeeping. I’d love to have a hive or two in my garden but wasn’t sure where to site them, as I work the entire property. But the very next week in perfect serendipity, a swarm arrived, just one metre from the ground and one metre north of my espalier boundary fence! Hooray! With a little friendly negotiation and neighbourly cooperation, some residents down the street became involved, and a day or two later the bees were happily ensconced in a hive less than a metre from my fence!
My grandfather had dozens of hives and sold the honey he produced, but for me the greatest benefit is having thousands of busy pollinators residing so close to my vegetable garden. Although bees travel kilometres to forage, it’s possibly no coincidence the queen chose this spot to alight, because I’d planted so many insect and bee-friendly plants. All spring, my garden has been alive with all kinds of insects – hoverflies, (whose larvae each consume up to 400 aphids!), ladybirds (ditto), lacewings, predatory wasps and beetles, spiders of every size, butterflies and even native bees, which I hadn’t spotted until I realised just how tiny they were. It’s incredibly exciting to see so much life! Of course there are aphids, caterpillars and chewing and sucking insects as well, but the garden is in reasonable balance and so for the most part they’ve taken only a minute portion of my crops.
These websites are packed with sites about beekeeping: Adding a bee hive to your garden; as well as for native bees and native blue banded bees and also this one on blue banded bees (making native bee habitat is my project for winter!), but you don’t need to have a hive on your property to attract bees and other insects to your garden.
1. Avoid pesticides (including organic ones) as much as possible. I personally particularly avoid all of the chemical neonicotinoid insecticides (Confidor, Resolva bug sprays) because of their effects on bees. Because these insecticides are systemic (circulated throughout the plant) and get into the pollen, you can’t avoid poisoning bees by spraying at any particular time of day, or using tablets pushed into the soil. While these insecticides are unlikely to be the sole cause of mass bee deaths in the USA (spurring a pre-emptive 2-year moratorium on their use in Europe and a ban in Oregon), they are definitely implicated. Nor is it surprising that USA corn farmers are eager to continue using this undoubtedly effective chemical regardless of its possible effects on bees, because corn is wind pollinated! However, unlike farmers in broad scale agriculture, home gardeners have plenty of less toxic options available, so it is common sense and easy for us to err on the side of caution even if our own government won’t apply the precautionary principle as the EU has done.
Your beneficial insects and spiders need a population of prey, and if you kill all the prey immediately, you’ll never establish a pool of predators either! If you’ve used a lot of sprays previously, you may have one or two bad seasons of pests, but by the next one the predator population wilI have established. In subsequent seasons when you see an infestation of aphids, try to wait and see if they’re brought under control by predators, remembering that there will be a small lag in the peaking of the two populations. Or you can buy predators from commercial suppliers (Good Bugs, Bug Central and Bugs for Bugs) to kick-start your population.
If aphids are damaging growing tips such that they’ll permanently distort growth or kill your plant, you can rub away only those, leaving the ones on older growth. If you must use pesticides, use the least toxic and most targeted possible. Don’t be fooled that organic pesticides are kind to the environment: some organic pesticides, such as pyrethrum and derris, are highly toxic, broad spectrum and disruptive to your garden ecosystem. I use target-specific Dipel for caterpillars that are damaging fruit or killing tiny seedlings (larger plants can support a few caterpillars; a few holes in kale leaves don’t matter), and sulphur dust for tomato mites.
2. Plant insect-attracting species. Of course they’ll visit your tomatoes, capsicums and zucchinis as well, but provide flowers throughout with overlapping blooming times, extending early and late into the season so bees have a food source from the moment they emerge in spring, to when they are ready to hibernate for winter.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), rosemary, oregano, salvias, daisies, basil, borage, alyssum, hyssop, lavenders, echinacea, wallflowers, chives, tansy, thyme, violets, nepeta and honesty (Lunaria) are just a few of the bee-friendly plants in my vegie garden. Marigolds (Tagetes and Calendula), cornflowers, mints, Solidago, zinnias, penstemon and candytuft (Iberis) are other insect-attracting species.
Plants in the Umbelliferae family are especially attractive to a huge range of insects. Coriander is one of the best; try also fennel (including bronze), dill, flat-leaved parsley, queen anne’s lace, yarrow and angelica. Many of these also have long flowering periods.
Beneficial, too, are plenty of flowering natives and species endemic to your area.
4. Maximise diversity, with lots of different flowering species mixed right in with your vegies.
5. Let some of each of your vegies go to seed instead of pulling them up the moment they’re past their best! The Cruciferae family (rocket, caulis, kale, broccoli etc), as well as those all-important Umbelliferae – carrot, parsnip, and celery – support a huge range of beneficial insects. Old leaves of plants in the cucurbit family, often with powdery mildew, are reportedly an excellent habitat for ladybird larvae – I will be checking mine this year, rather than pulling out the plants immediately.
6. Provide a water source. A pond with aquatic plants is ideal, but the four large water bowls in my garden do a good job. Yes, the mosquitoes love them too, but with some wire netting in the bowls below the surface, the fish will survive the kookaburras, magpies and choughs, and control the wrigglers. The water plants in the bowls provide habitat for dragonflies and lacewings.
7. Tolerate a few weeds – many, such as nettles, provide important overwintering habitat or food sources for predatory insects. And of course the weeds themselves add diversity, and are preferable to bare ground.
This spring has been exhilarating for the wealth of insects in my garden – especially the new sunny vegie beds that have been in only for a season or two. I have no idea what many of them are: entomologist readers, please identify any of the critters in my pics!