How to actually make your garden bee-friendly

Tips for the wanna-bee gardener.

Art by Maxim Adams.

I love Spring because the insects come out. Greeting the sun, baby mantises skittle out of their egg cases, mosquitoes whine through the air to peddle their grim wares, and my garden comes alive with bees. From their phenomenal memory for geography to their surprising facility with the concept of zero, bees deserve their place as the public face of all insects, and for millennia have been a source of fascination, terror and consternation. For me the dominant feeling is melancholy. It’s impossible to contemplate their wonder without also recalling colony collapse, extinction crises and their mysterious disappearance, echoing catastrophic declines of insects worldwide. This dread drove me down the rabbit hole of research into how to make my garden more pollinator-friendly, and I hope the fruits I’ve gleaned may be of some use to someone.

If you want bees in your garden, you need flowers (truly I impart great wisdom). Yet the challenge, of course, lies in picking which ones to get, especially whether to opt for native or exotic cultivars. I love native gardens perhaps more than the next man, but bees are surprisingly flexible. Our backyard marigolds are a crowd favourite among the stingless bees, and blue-banded bees go absolutely berserk for a hit of Thai basil nectar (albeit flying too fast for me to ever photograph, the bastards). Honeybees are even more versatile pollinators, who delight in everything from low-lying clovers to the upper reaches of a bottlebrush. Scientific research broadly says the same: different plants attract different species of bees, but anything with flowers is enough to get started.

While the variety of plants isn’t particularly important, as long as they have sustained and extensive blooms, what is important is how you plant them. A rookie error is to sequester lots of different flowers into individual pots; a bee-friendly garden should instead have sprawling bushes, covered in dense blooms. When a worker bee dances to communicate the location of a flower patch, the duration and urgency of her movements reflect how abundant the nectar is, which in turn attracts others to tune in and follow her on a second journey. I’ve seen first-hand how a chance visit from a single bee to a blooming cherry tree quickly avalanches into a veritable swarm.

In any bee-oriented garden, it’s ideal to have variety: there are over 200 species of bee in Sydney alone, each with its own preference of floral height, colour and shape. For some, their tongues are so short that a bell-shaped flower is forbidden fruit, forever out of reach. Hence, opting for a hearty combination of flowering trees, bushes and ground cover is the best way to get as many visitors as possible. If you want to leave the casual servers and enter the world of ranked competitive gardening, then choosing species with different bloom timing, to cover as much of the Spring–Autumn period as possible, will add further panache to your design.

If there were one simple action you could take to help our pollinators, it would be to stop using pesticides. A determined worker bee can travel many kilometres in a day, thus any one garden won’t make or break a day’s foraging. On the other hand, the tiniest traces of insecticides or fungicides can be lethal for native and European bees alike. Nurseries and garden centres, with seedlings grown under the fluorescent lights of sealed greenhouses, sell us a myth of perfection in which all plants are verdant and unblemished; not so in nature. Precluding a freak locust swarm, pests may pilfer a few leaves but rarely kill their host plant, so I promise your backyard will live without the help of sprays. A well-seasoned garden will also come to harbour predators that regulate the numbers of caterpillars and aphids with little-to-no human intervention. From my bedroom window, I can watch spider wasps determinedly fly into cobwebs and capture the unwitting orb weavers, the hunter becoming the hunted as the two predators keep each other in check. This is a delicate balance, best not ruined by the whiff of pesticide.

The secret is that a pollinator-friendly garden is a wild garden, mimicking fields before we partitioned them into backyards. It’s simple in concept but enormous in all its implications. A tidy flower patch is of course better than nothing, but to truly love bees is to embrace chaos, and to let nature take its course.

Alternatively, there is the option of cutting out the middleman and setting up a hive all of your own. A bee is a simple creature, unaware of your toils, and tender care radiates such warmth and humility. To me, it is just so human. The most seasoned keepers I’ve met refuse to squash even a single worker when they check on the brood or swab the comb for honey. While not really my area of expertise, I extend two pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my meagre years: firstly that “stingless” bee is more of a name than a description, and secondly that the smell of banana coincidentally is the same as honeybees’ danger pheromone. Good luck.

I’ve reserved space here for a pet peeve of mine: bee hotels. If you’ve never seen one, it’s a cluster of hollow sticks, designed to mimic the habitat of elusive solitary bees (widely acknowledged as the “sigma males” of the insect world). People trip over themselves to buy them, entranced by the prospect of entomological clout. And yet, this particular emperor is starkly naked. When insect visitation is actually measured, the hotel is exposed as more of a mausoleum, overrun with invasive species and predators like the parasitoid ichneumon wasp (see below). I personally find the wasps pretty endearing, though bear in mind my ideal woman has an ovipositor. Still, solitary bees are a worthy addition to any backyard, and to house them you don’t need artificial tunnels, but rather trees and shrubs whose branches will naturally form hollows as the garden matures.

Carl Sagan once postulated: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” The less quoted corollary is that if you want to save bees in your garden, you must first invent an entire ecosystem. There truly are no quick fixes: a thriving bee community needs nothing less than a healthy balance of flowers, habitats and even natural predators. It’s a microcosm of the futility of individual action in the face of impending climate catastrophe, and the anxiety I feel is very similar. Do we judge our actions on their morals or their consequences? Is it worth the effort better expended in collective action? These aren’t answerable questions, so I can only heed what I know to be true: if beekeeping is an act of humility, saving bees is an act of grace. Planting a flower, holding off on pesticide or resuscitating a tired worker with nectar — even if kindness is not its own reward, these gestures still carry hope and empathy. To me, that is enough.

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