Good news for bees

Sunday, 06 May 2018

Bee enjoying Hydrangea aspera in my garden

Last week, European Union countries voted to ban the outdoor use of the neonicotinoid group of insecticides (including Confidor) because of the harm they do to bees. These systemic pesticides are absorbed by the plant's foliage rather than just staying on its surface, so spread to all parts of the plant, including the pollen. Some studies have suggested that exposure to the chemicals affect the bees' navigation and immune systems, making them more vulnerable to parasitic infections, ultimately resulting in colony collapse. Native bees are also likely to be affected. Bees are the most important insect pollinators of flowers: essential for the production of fruit, certain vegetables and agricultural crops, as well as flower and vegetable seeds. Bees are a vital part of the ecosystem and any threat to them is a threat to us too.

While there is yet to be a blanket ban on neonicotinoids in Australia, Bunnings, Mitre 10, Woolworths and Coles will cease selling Confidor this year, for which they are to be applauded. Confidor is marketed as a control for aphids, mealy bugs, scale, thrips, whitefly and other sucking insects on ornamentals, roses and vegetables. Most of these pests can be dealt with by horticultural oils. I know that many gardeners like the Confidor tablets that are buried under azalea bushes to control the lace bug that disfigures the foliage of these plants, but the tablets pose the same danger to bees as the spray form. I would suggest that perhaps we should reconsider the suitability of growing azaleas in Sydney, as they seem to have a lot of problems - not only lace bug but also red spider and petal blight! Think about the huge range of other plants that grow so well in our climate and that don't need any scary pesticides to flourish! I implore gardeners not to use neonicotinoid products - not only for the bees' sake but also for your own health.

Bee enjoying flowers of golden penda (Xanthostemon chrysanthus), Wallaman Falls, North Queensland

Apart from avoiding the use of dangerous chemicals, there are lots of other things home gardeners can do to help bees. Growing plants in your garden to provide them with nectar and pollen is the most obvious one. Much of our native flora - including many species of Eucalyptus, Corymbia, Angophora, Acacia, Banksia, Grevillea, Callistemon and Melaleuca - provides excellent floral resources for bees. There are many compact varieties available that are suited for home gardens.

Bees are attracted to lavender blooms; photographed in Umbria, Italy

Numerous introduced plants are also very attractive to bees. One of the most important of these is the mint family (Lamiaceae). The flowers of many kitchen herbs are from this family and have a great appeal for bees, including rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, thyme, basil, mint, marjoram and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Other favoured plants from this family include lavenders, most of the different Salvia species and Nepeta.

Echium candicans is a favourite bee plant; photographed on Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour

The borage family (Boraginaceae) contains many bee plants: the pretty, blue-flowered, self-seeding herb borage, the various species of Echium (including the spectacular spring-flowering Echium candicans, pictured left), Heliotropium arborescens, Pulmonaria, common forget-me-nots and Chinese forget-me-nots.

Cosmos is a daisy flower attractive to bees; photographed at Heligan Garden, Cornwall, UK

Plants from the Asteraceae family are also considered to be bee-friendly - the best ones to grow are the single-flowered types, as otherwise the bees cannot easily access the nectar and pollen. Most of these are suitable for Sydney gardens - for example, perennial Aster, purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea), Gazania, Dahlia, Cosmos (pictured at left) and Zinnia.

Including some of these plants in your garden will help to encourage bees to visit. Bee plants are best grown in full sun, as bees often ignore those grown in shade. They also dislike strong wind, so providing shelter from wind is a factor. Bees also need water: wet sand, a shallow-edged pool or a birdbath with stones in it can all be provide a suitable source. It is a delight to have bees in our gardens, and our world would be a very different place without them.