Get your garden buzzing!
Our guide to gardening for bees gives tips on growing beautiful indigenous plants that create a thriving ecosystem for pollinators
MAR 4, 2021 | Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photographs by Megan Griffiths, Phil White, ‘rozlynnvr’, Sandra Falanga, Jimmy Whatmore, Jeremy Gilmore and Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
Gardening for bees
Above: A Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera ssp. capensis) feeds on flowers of the hardy succulent groundcover sour fig (Carpobrotus acinaciformis). Photo: ‘rozlynnvr’/iNaturalist.
Few people realise there are more than 1 000 different bee species that make South Africa their home. But like other wildlife worldwide, insects are often being squeezed out of their habitat as urban areas become more built up.
Insects are a vital part of the world’s ecosystems – but more than 40% of the world’s insect populations are declining. More than a third of insects are now recognised as being endangered.
Above: Double-banded carpenter bees (Xylocopa caffra) are perhaps one of South Africa’s best-known solitary bees. They are common visitors to wildlife-friendly gardens. Photo: Phil White/iNaturalist.
Despite being perhaps some of the most loved and charismatic insects, bees have not escaped this. Like many other insects, they play a key role in human survival as well as sustaining South Africa’s natural biodiversity. This is because they pollinate both food crops that sustain humans and our indigenous flora.
Anyone with access to an open space to garden can make space for bees to feed. There are many ways that you can make your own back garden, local community garden or park a more bee-friendly place.
Above: Cape honeybee (Apis mellifera ssp. capensis) visiting pink joy (Crassula ovata). Indigenous to the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, it is often grown as a houseplant and also makes a hardy, bee-friendly addition to the indigenous garden. Photo: Zoë Chapman Poulsen.
One of the best ways that you can create space for bees is choosing locally indigenous plants. South Africa’s extraordinary plant diversity means there is a huge range of different species to choose between – from tall trees and shrubs to lower-growing herbaceous perennial and annual species.
Many indigenous species are waterwise, too, so they need less precious water during the dry season, whether in winter or summer-rainfall parts of the country.
Above: The easy-growing, colourful September bush (Polygala myrtifolia) provides year-round floral displays and is much loved by carpenter bees. Photo: Sandra Falanga/iNaturalist.
The more people create pollinator-friendly green spaces for wildlife in urban areas, the more these places act together – helping wildlife thrive and move between habitats within urban areas.
As your garden or green space grows, enjoy seeing what creatures great and small may come to visit. Document your findings on the iNaturalist app to help scientists better understand South Africa’s biodiversity.
Above: The weeping sagewood (Buddleja auriculata) provides a wonderful shelter or screen in the indigenous garden. Bees, butterflies and other insects love it, in turn attracting insect-eating birds such as white eyes and southern boubous. Photo: Jimmy Whatmore/iNaturalist.
7 TIPS FOR BETTER BEE GARDENING
- Year-round bee larder: Help bees find food in your garden through the year by choosing plants that flower at different times of year or that have a long flowering season. Peak flowering for the September bush (Polygala myrtifolia), for instance, is early spring but this hardy and beautiful shrub flowers throughout the year. It is often visited by carpenter bees.
- Scent signals: One of the joys of gardening is growing plants that are just as attractively scented as they look. Bees love scented flowers at least as much as we do because the scent helps them locate flowers for food from further away. Weeping sagewood (Buddleja auriculata) has glossy green leaves and produces sweetly scented flowers from May to August. It is frost tolerant and easy to grow.
- Economy of (bee) effort: Bees prefer to visit larger groups of flowers of the same kind in your garden, so consider planting in larger blocks – this mass planting also creates colourful displays that really pop. Treasure flowers (Gazania species) are one of South Africa’s most drought and heat-tolerant groundcovers and a magnet for bees. They grow easily from cuttings so go wild and enjoy their vivid colours in your garden.
- On the wild side: Garden wildlife including bees respond well to gardens that are a little more wild and offer plenty of spaces to shelter.
- Don’t be deadly: If you are encouraging bees and other insects into your garden, it is important not to use pesticides and other chemicals.
- Bee hosting: Consider adding a bee hotel where solitary bees can shelter in your garden. These attractive wooden structures are widely available and make a wonderful addition to wildlife gardens.
- Water time: During dry spells in summer or winter, offer fresh water to help bees out. This can be any kind of shallow container or bird bath.
Above: Treasure flowers (Gazania species) make easy-to-grow and bee-friendly groundcovers for the indigenous garden. They are tough and can tolerate nutrient-poor sandy soils. Photo: Jeremy Gilmore.
Above: Bee hotels are a place for solitary bees to make their homes in gardens. Unlike honeybees, solitary bees live alone and do not make honey. Photo: Megan Griffiths.
Know, grow, protect and enjoy South Africa’s indigenous plants.
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