Habitat or Messy Garden?

In Spring I began exploring and learning about our native bees, beneficial insects, nature spirits as a way of bringing a positive energy to the garden and to help our environment.
Although bees look ethereal in the morning light, like little fairies flitting in and out of the hive, sometimes covered with the pixie dust of flowers, sometimes swollen with sweet nectar the  Australian native bees and other beneficial insects are under threat and will continue to be under threat from habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change unless we humans change our ways.
As primary pollinators, bees are a vital part of both the human and animal food chains, and on small scale are an integral link in a healthy garden.
Simply put, bees keep plants and crops alive. Without bees (honey bees, solitary species, bumblebees); pollen wasps (Masarinae); ants; flies including bee flies, hoverflies and mosquitoes; lepidopterans, both butterflies and moths; and flower beetles, we wouldn’t have very much to eat, simply if they do not have enough to eat, we won’t have enough to eat.
Although the majority of our basic foods like, wheat and corn, are wind-pollinated meaning the breeze does the work of the birds and the bees, they would be unaffected by a massive pollinator catastrophe. But how long before the rest of our food supply would be affected? Well, within just three months of our last bee dying off, producers would be facing record low harvest yields. Much of our foods , Pome Fruits (apples and pears), Nashi Fruit, Cherries, Kiwi Fruit, Blueberries, Raspberries, Strawberries, Cucurbits – Melons, Pumpkins, Marrow, Squash, Cucumbers, Zucchinis, Almonds, Lucerne, Buckwheat, Clover, Sunflowers, Canola, Fava Beans, Chick Pea, all Stone Fruits and Vegetable seed production  rely on bee-assisted pollination.
In fact, one analysis of the global crop market found that pollinators are essential or highly, moderately, or slightly necessary for 91 crops consumed by humans. So, we would definitely lose many of the foods that make our diets vibrant, healthy, and nutritious.
Bees, along with butterflies, moths, ants, beetles, native wasps and birds, are among the most important pollinators of our plants and the crops in our backyards.
So, if we want to good crop yield from our gardens we need to leave the bees, beneficial insects and their protectors the Nature Spirits ( who help take care of them and Mother Earth) to their own devices in the backyard, as they go about their business and more often than not help the garden to flourish.

Where there are bees there are flowers, and wherever there are flowers there is new life and hope.”

― Christy Lefteri, The Beekeeper of Aleppo

So, in late Spring I set about to provide habitat (accommodation, food and water) that will attract these beneficial pollinators to the garden and help boost declining populations.
Building your bee hotel
If you’ve decided to build your own bee hotel, you can make it as large or as small as you like; as fancy or as humble as you please.  It can be a multi-storey construction that caters for a variety of bee species, with blocks of drilled timber, clay, twigs, bamboo and even some plantings of bee attracting flowers growing in the gaps.  Or you might prefer the simplicity of a few tin cans filled with twigs and/or clay. 
Choose what suits your garden, your budget and your resources.  Really, you will be able to make your hotels without going out and buying a thing.  
What can I build a bee hotel in?
It’s time to get imaginative.  The basic requirements are that your hotel should
  • have a back on it, (or if you’re just making a free-hanging bundle of stems, they should have a closed end),
  • be waterproof.
  • be at least 10-15cm deep
  • not include glass or plastic, due to problems with condensation, leading to fungus and mould.
Here are some idea but there are lots of great options:
  • A box built from untreated timber off-cuts (no chipboard or conglomerate woods made with glue)
  • A terracotta pots
  • An old saucepan or pot
  • Tin cans – tie or glue a bundle together if you like.
  • An old biscuit tin (make sure it’s deep enough)
  • Terracotta pipe
  • Cinder blocks
What can be added to a bee hotel:
Fennel, lovage, Jerusalem artichoke or sunflower stems:
  • Clean off any foliage and cut stems to length,
  • Ensure there is at least 10-15 cm of pithy stem between joints.
  • Tie the pieces into bundles with twine.
Bamboo stalks:
  • Cut bamboo into sections with 10-15cm of hollow stem between joints.
  • Leave the end that will be inserted into the bee hotel, sealed by a node. (see diagram at right)
Drilled logs or untreated timber blocks: 
  • Use a variety of drill bits, ranging from 3mm-8mm and drill holes to a depth of at least 10cm.
  • Holes should be at least 2cm apart.
  • Ensure your drill bits are sharp and in good condition to make the job easier and to make smooth tunnels so the bees’ wings won’t be damaged by splinters.
Clay packed pipes and blocks: 
  • Pack clay into pipes or thick bamboo stems.
  • Use a poker approximately 8mm wide to push holes 10-15 cm deep.
  • Alternatively, if your clay is firm, or even hard, cut it into blocks and drill into that before inserting into your bee hotel.
Extra fillers
  • Gather sticks and reeds to tie into bundles, where bees will find little nooks and crannies to nest in.
  • Pine cones and other large space fillers are often added but are not useful to native bees that prefer to tunnel into a solid medium.

Location, location, location

Your native bee hotel should ideally be facing between the north and east, in a sheltered, sunny to semi-shaded position.  Make sure it won’t get too hot in Summer.  It should sit between 1 and 2 metres off the ground and have a water source nearby, along with nectar rich plants.

Then we need to provide flowering plants. Flowers provide their only food, as they eat nectar and pollen for themselves and they also collect pollen for their young. So, I planted a Nectary. I dug over a garden bed and scattered seeds, watered and then stood back waited. When planning your Nectary garden, many plants attract bees, butterflies and fairies… some of their  favourite flowers are include, Cosmos, Daisies, Zinnia, Cornflower, Coneflower, Basil, Thyme, Dill, Chives, Lemon Balm, Mint, Lavender, Salvias, Borage, Bergamot, Sunflowers Clovers, Yarrow, Red Valerian, Daisies, Rosemary, Alyssum and Pincushion Scabiosa, are favourites of the bees, faires and myself, most prefer blue or purple flowers, although mauve, pink, yellow and white flowers are also popular.

Dill and gazania will attract ladybugs. Nasturtium will attract ground beetles and spiders. Yarrow will summon more ladybugs and hoverflies. Clover, mint and poppies are great for attracting helpful bees, so welcome these plants and let them all spread and create bases for ongoing nectary.

So far we have had continual supply of flowers in the nectary and should till the late autumn. Perfect!

As well as a Nectary, you can plant some favourite perennials:

Abelia x grandiflora – Abelia

  • Hardy, medium shrub with masses of white bell-shaped flowers

  • Adored by Blue Banded and Teddy Bear bees, amongst others.

  • It begins flowering in about December so it provides a good nectar and pollen supply after many wildflowers finish flowering in spring.

Buddleja — Butterfly Bush

  • A tall shrub, producing clusters of flowers that are enjoyed by many types of native bees.

  • Leaf Cutter Bees will use the leaves for nesting material, while Reed Bees nest in the pithy canes.

  • NB: Buddlejahas become an environmental weed in damp sclerophyll forest, disturbed areas, roadsides and river beds in some parts of Victoria.  Please do not use it if it may cause a weed problem in your area.

Callistamen – Bottlebrush

  • Abundant bright red bottlebrush flowers will attract a wide range of native bees as well as nectar feeding birds.

  • Hardy small to large shrubs can be used as ground covers, hedges, screening shrubs or street trees.

Daisies — many varieties

  • The shallow flowers of daisies provide readily accessible nectar and pollen to all native bee species.

  • Long-flowering, compact and low-growing, they can fit into even the smallest of gardens.

  • Both native species (e.g. the Cut Leaf Daisy Brachyscomeand the Everlasting Daisy Bracteantha) and exotic species (e.g. the African Daisy Osteospermum and the Seaside Daisy Erigeron) are popular with native bees.

Eucalyptus and Angophora — Gum Trees

  • We can’t all fit a big gum tree in our backyards, but if you do happen to have the space, the native bees will love it.

  • The gum blossom is highly attractive to a wide range of native bee species, and the tree is an important source of resin for Resin Bees.

Grevillea — Spider Flower

  • Long flowering shrubs produce large amounts of nectar will attract a wide range of native bees and nectar feeding birds.

  • They range in size from tall shrubs to prostrate varieties to suit many different garden situations.

Lavandula – Lavender

  • Purple flower spikes of the lavender are particularly attractive to Blue Banded Bees.

  • Compact hardy shrubs that produce plenty of nectar and flower for a long period.

Leptospermum — Tea Tree

  • Native bees as well as many other wild pollinators will flock to the cup-shaped flowers of tea trees.

  • With papery layered bark, tea trees range in size from small trees to prostrate shrubs.

Melaleuca – Paperbark/ Honey myrtle

  • Abundant brush-like flowers attract numerous native bees as well as birds.

  • Different varieties range in size from small shrubs to small trees.

Westringia — Native Rosemary

  • These hardy shrubs flower almost all year round

  • Particularly attractive to Blue Banded Bees and Teddy Bear Bees.


Mother Earth speaks to us through every flower

Most native bees take a break mid-winter, when their focus turns to shelter, while honeybees live in colonies and hives, most native bee species nest underground or in natural cavities so, make sure your garden provides some basic protected habitat. So, here’s the good part for “messy” gardeners like me, allow a few patches of partially bare, undisturbed soil to help underground nesters, allow hollow plants stems to stay over winter  there may be tiny native bees hibernating inside, add some branches of varying sizes or a Bee Hotel for others.

In Autumn let your veggies bolt, seeding plants are the bee’s and other beneficial insect best friend. All that food gives the bees a chance to bulk up to survive the colder months and make it to spring. It might look messy to an amateur eye, but a healthy garden has a few leafy vegetables bolting after harvest and as a bonus you get to save the seed for next year.

Don’t forget the water. Provide a source of shallow water, such as a bowl with some floating twigs or corks to provide a landing pad. We don’t want drowned bees or nature spirits.

Eliminate pesticide use or you’ll kill the very ones you are hoping to attract and welcome to the garden.

To know and learn about the difference between native local bees and wasps. Check out www.aussiebee.com.au/beesinyourarea

A sobering thought, if we lose all of our bees, the least of our worries would be the lack a variety of foods, as at that point we’d be living in a world so soiled and toxic that we’d have much bigger problems.

In the face of all that is happening in our world, it may feel like a small thing to do, to plant a Nectary , to stop using pesticides and create a place of positive energy , but from little things big things grow, and it is vitally important that we provide a habitat , no matter how small, for the native bees, nature spirits and other beneficial insects before it’s too late for them, Mother Earth and for Us.

The Planet is our one and only home, we have no other choice  – we must care for it . 

The photos are of Kerrie’s Nectary and vegie garden, the bee hotels and construction photos from our Bee Kind Workshop held in Geelong Jan 2020