Creating a Bee Metropolis
One of the most frequent questions we are asked at Hive Haven is…“How can I design the garden to provide enough flowers to attract native bees?” The good news is that bees respond well to Australian native garden design.
Research indicates that native bees thrive in urban environments. With the depletion of native vegetation and de-forestation, even the smallest garden has an important role to play in providing a food source for native bees. We can all do our bit to keep our native bees happy and healthy by planting pollinator friendly plants and creating suitable habitats.
In this article we are going to share with you how to design a garden to attract bees (native and European), butterflies and all sort of creatures to support a thriving Australian native garden. I’ll be detailing the following topics:
– How to design a garden
– Water sources for bees
– How Far Does A Native Bee Forage?
– Australian native cottage garden design
– Best plants for bees
– Vegetables and herbs.
Sprinkled throughout the article you’ll also find my Top 5 Tips for Australian Native Garden Design.
How To Design A Garden
A hive of Australian stingless native bees are perfect for residential living in a house or apartment. With a little attention to the design of an Australian native garden they can thrive in most habitats – but not all.
Native bees like to be warm. Whilst they quite happily colonise cool climates they definitely don’t like cold weather. If you live somewhere that experiences freezing temperatures a native bee hive will struggle to develop even with the most beautiful garden.
The good news is that native bees are happy to live four levels above ground in the city, in a small suburban garden, bushland, farmland – pretty much anywhere as long as they have access to a year-round source of nectar, pollen and resin.
Australian Native Garden Design Tip #1
A beautiful green lawn is a desert as far as bees, butterflies and many other insects are concerned. Leave a patch of clover or flat weed (often mistaken for dandelions) to flower. We can all do our bit to help bees.
Bees and Plants
There is a symbolic relationship between bees and plants. The native bee has evolved in Australia since the dinosaurs and has a symbolic relationship with many cottage type native plants. One excellent example of this is the Australian Macadamia flower. The Australian Macadamia Industry has identified native bees as effective pollinators. Their small size enables them to navigate the macadamia flower creating a high rate of nut set.
Collaboration between bees and plants is fruitful for both. The native bee is provided with food (nectar or pollen) and the plant gets to disperse its pollen (sperm cells) to other plants of the same species. Australia has 1700 species of solitary native bees and 11 species of native social bees aka the Australian native bee. These bees have adapted to pollinating a vast array of Australian native and introduced flowers.
Australian Native Garden Design Tip #2
The first thing people often do when they decide to attract bees to their garden is plant marigolds which unfortunately are low in pollen. They are double flowers which make it difficult for the bees to collect the pollen. Marigolds also produce a strong odour that bees tend to avoid.
Water Sources For Bees
Are you considering a bee water feeder? European honey bees – are reliant on water. They take water back to their hive to cool it. They spit it out and fan their tiny wings creating an evaporator cooling effect.
The Australian stingless native bee does not have this ability; hence the importance of providing them with an insulated hive that protects them from overheating.
On hot days Australian stingless native bees can be seen sucking moisture from the edge of bird baths or small bowls. However in a normal season they usually collect all the moisture they need from flowers. A bird bath or small bowl of water is a great backup water source for bees when they need it.
Be mindful of tiny bee feet when choosing resting spots. Marbles and stones will heat up in the sun. We have two bee water feeders in our backyard. A shallow feeder near the house that is filled each time we water the pot plants and a deeper water feeder near the vegetable garden that holds in excess of 50 litres of water. The deeper water feeder is filled with tank water and holds water plants and guppies.
How Far Does A Native Bee Forage?
The Australian Stingless Native Bee is thought to have a flight span (or foraging distance) of up to one kilometre but is happiest foraging within a 150 square metre radius. Keep this in mind when planning your garden. Your neighbour or public park may already provide a flowering tree or shrub that you can complement by providing alternative plantings. For example you may find a species that flowers in a different month or season.
The European honey bee will forage a distance up to five kilometres from their hive if they have too but the Native bee stays closer to the hive.
Australian Native Cottage Garden Design
When we imagine a ‘cottage garden’ our thoughts usually turn to the classic English cottage garden model. However it’s easy to design an equally beautiful Australian native cottage garden.
Depending on your situation there is opportunity to mix groundcovers, grasses, bulbs, climbing plants and even the iconic Australian flowering gum tree. Australian native plants are generally drought resistant and not only a mecca for bees but welcomed by local wildlife including birds and butterflies.
Remember to factor in the four seasons. Choose plants that flower in different seasons to provide yearlong flowering.
The source of nectar and pollen is important for native bees and wildlife of many shapes and forms. We have put together a list of easy to grow, easy to find natives we believe are the best plants for bees. These are widely available in nurseries and on-line.
Australian Native Garden Design Tip #3
Take into account what your neighbour has growing in their yard. There may be an opportunity to share a climber or flowing hedge.
Best Plants for Bees
Grevilia – tops the list; and comes in all shapes and sizes; from towering silky oaks to ground covers. Many grevilia’s flower all year round and are an important source of nectar for bees, birds and gliders. They form the skeleton of your cottage garden and can be softened with kangaroo paw, native daisies, and violets.
Brachyscome (native daisy) – lots of colour, shapes and sizes to choose from. Perfect for rambling over rocks and filling in empty spaces. Extremely hardy and soil tolerant. Loves full sun but will tolerate part shade. Easy to propagate from laying and they tend to self-seed filling tiny cracks in pavers and brick work with bursts of colour. A favourite with our bees.
Callistemon (bottlebrush trees) – an important refuge for urban wildlife and backdrop to any native cottage garden. Varieties range from one metre to ten metres. Flowers are full of nectar and pollen. A mecca for small birds, butterflys and bees.
Eucalyptus (gum trees) – the backbone of Australian flora and today we welcome a range of dwarf gum varieties (6 to 10 metres) that will flower from an early age and are maintenance free once established.
Syzygium (lilly pilly trees) – evergreen rainforest plants; many of which have adapted to urban living. A popular hedge with glossy green leaves with flushes of pink. The majority flower in spring to mid simmer. Followed by berries.
Melaleucas (paperbark) – recognised by their whitish papery bark which when planted in clusters form a stunning feature. If you have a boggy spot at the end or your garden or if your building a ‘bog pond’ to support wildlife this is a perfect choice. The flowers are a mecca for bees.
Leptospermums (tea trees) – weeping foliage in various heights from shrub to tree. Leptospermum scoparium has raised its profile in recent years. The nectar of the scoparium is collected and made into a sticky jelly honey by honeybees and known as Manuka. The Manuka industry is growing and here in Australia researchers have identified many mor varieties that have equal is not higher levels of methlglyoxal (MGO) in their nectar. The strength and potency of Manuka products is directly measurable by the level of MGO present. If your thinking of planting Leptospermum species to farm honeybees for Manuka you would be best to contact the Department of Agriculture. It’s important that you choose the correct species and genetics.
Australian Native Garden Design Tip #4
If your planting for the home garden and want to choose a good MGO performer you could try Leptospermum Whitei or Speciosum.
Westringia (Wild Rosemary) – Hardy and water-resistant shrubs that flower all year round. Great for hedges and particularly attractive to Blue Banded Bees and Teddy Bear Bees.
Resin Source – trees that provide resin are important for native bees. Well recognised resin trees are turpentine, lemon-scented gum and hoop pine They provide a source of resin the bees utilise to make propolis which the bees use to make ‘storage pots’ in which they fill with honey. The high antibacterial, micro-bacterial qualities of native honey is enhanced by the infusion of propolis. First Nation and early settlers utilised a blend of native honey and propolis for wounds and topical application.
You can find many of these plants at the ‘Beerburrum Bee Garden’ along with four Hive Haven native bee hives. [link to Hive Sites page]. The Sunshine Coast Council in collaboration with the Beerburrum community planted the garden in 2019. The garden is open to the public and adjacent to the Glasshouse Mountains Trail Head.
Vegetable and Herb
The first rule here is to leave some for the bees!
A vegetable and herb patch is a great way to feed yourself and your bees. When we think flowers we rarely think of rocket, lettuce or broccoli. When left to flower these plants provide a stunning show of colour and sweet edible flowers for your bees. They are quick growing flowering plants and add ‘bee-value’ to your native cottage garden while the other plants establish themselves.
Brassicas – including radish, broccoli, rocket, turnips and arugula attract bees and provide leafy greens and crunchy tubers. Some get wild and messy but others including wild rocket are neat and tidy producing delicate yellow flowers over many months. The leaves are still edible and the bees are being fed.
Basil – is a firm favourite when it comes to quick, easy & affordable herbs. It will grow in well any position from full sun to part shade. At Hive Haven we grow a variety of annual and perennial basil. We plant in clusters of four to six in each pot or garden bed. This enables us to prune back two plants at a time to extend flowering and avoid straggly growth.
Nasturtium – fully edible come in climbing, cascading or bushy varieties. These beauties thrive in poor soil and little water. The flowers are prolific in early Spring and provide a much-needed boost to bees who are looking for nectar and pollen to re-plenish their hive after the cold winter. The peppery leaves balance a green salad. The edible flowers add colour to salads and cakes. At Hive Haven we collect the seed to add to our ‘Betty Bee Pollinator Mix’ we also pickle the seeds which taste like capers. Very yum!
Lettuce – depending on the variety; a mass of sweet yellow or white flowers will form when your lettuce goes to seed. We plant heritage varieties. The seeds are blown around the garden in the wind and self-seed throughout our garden. A lettuce that has self-seeded always tastes better than one we have purposely planted.
Sunflowers – a mecca for bees and with so many varieties available you will be able to find one that suits you. A patch of sunflowers makes the perfect canopy for pumpkins or the perfect living stake for you climbing beans.
Australian Native Garden Design Tip #5
Our Seeds For Bees [link to shop page] pollinator mix is an easy way to entice bees into your garden.
Obviously, your geographical location will determine the best species for your bee-friendly garden. For more ideas visit your local native plant nursery will be a good source of help if you want to learn more about Australian native garden design for bees.
Your Bee Haven
Native garden ideas are everywhere. Now you know what to look for, you can start your own mini or mega bee metropolis.
Remember to plan the garden design before you actually start! Consider your neighbours, what they’re growing and how far a native bee will forage. Think about water sources for bees. Australian native cottage garden design is a visual and edible wonderland for both you and bees. With a little thought and effort you will reap the reward of attracting bees and lots of other critters that support the eco system.
Obviously, your geographical location will determine the best species for your bee-friendly garden. For more ideas visit your local native plant nursery. If your super keen you cant go past this free 330 page guide by Mark Leech from RIRDC; Bee Friendly – A Planting Guide for European Honeybees and Australian Native Pollinators.
Enjoy your garden transformation!