How to make your garden native bee friendly

By Eliza Keck

12 September 2018

5 minute read

 

Native Australian bee

Who wouldn’t want to attract bees with adorable shiny eyes?! Megachile (Schizomegachile) monstrosa – Jean and Fred Hort

Now that you’ve got your Guide to Native Bees of Australia and know your Amegilla Asaropoda from your A. Zonamegilla, it’s time to start luring those beautiful bundles of fuzz into your garden. As well as enjoying their optical opulence, you can also be happy knowing that you’re giving our flying friends a hand. There is very little research about native bees which means we don’t know how their populations are tracking. There are only three species that have an official conservation status currently, all in Western Australia: the ‘critically endangered’ Leioproctus douglasiellus and Neopasiphae simplicitor and the ‘presumed extinct’ Hesperocolletes douglasi. Every effort we can make as communities and individuals to ensure our gardens are native bee friendly can help species that may be thriving or threatened.

Flower power

A native purple flowering plant

Melaleuca squamea, aka swamp honey-myrtle. Image M. Fagg

Our favourite vegetarian wasps can’t live without protein-packed pollen and nourishing nectar, so the first step for attracting native bees is an obvious one: plant lots of flowers. Banksia, Callistemon and Melaleuca are all fantastic plant groups because they produce lots of pollen and nectar. Macadamia and Leptospermum don’t have much useful pollen but they’re very rich in nectar whereas some Acaica species (wattles) are packed with pollen. Lots of ground-dwelling bee species devour daisies and other shallow flowers.

As you might expect, many bees have developed special features to exploit plants from their region, so if you’re starting your garden from scratch you should try for as many local plant species as possible. It’s important to remember that what’s indigenous to Innisfail may not be local to Lara. Find a nursery that has a selection of indigenous flowering plants (‘native’ plants are from anywhere in Australia, ‘indigenous’ plants are native to your local area) and try to be as diverse in your selection as possible. Not only will local plants help your bees, it’ll keep your garden looking great as indigenous plants are primed to thrive in the local climate and soils. Easy-care grass and non-flowering trees such as conifers offer nothing for native bees so avoid them when you can.

Nectar nest! Leptospermum flavescens, aka tantoon. Image M. Fagg

Need some help with your veggie patch? While some native bees are specialists, there are some fantastic generalist foragers that can pollinate introduced species of flowers. In fact, blue-banded bees are pros when it comes to buzz-pollinating tomato, capsicum, chilli and other nightshade plants.

One final tip – that might be tough for gardening gurus – is to let some of your weeds go to flower before pulling them out. They’re often some of the first plants to flower in spring and can provide an early leg-up for our buzzing buddies.

Nesting best thing

A log with holes drilled in it

Lodger bees love these hotels! Image Dominicus Johannes Bergsma/Wikimedia commons

Unlike European honeybees, the majority of native Australian bees are solitary, meaning the female will make a nest all by herself by burrowing into rotten wood, dirt or even sparse lawns. One of the best ways to help these hard-working single mums is to create some ‘bee hotels’ for our many lodger bee species. Lodger bees will happily build their nests in pre-existing holes that you can provide. Cut lengths of bamboo or cardboard tubes and stick them onto a tree trunk or wall that is sheltered from the elements.  There are some beautiful and practical bee-hotel making guides online that range from easy to extravagant, so get searching.

Native purple flowering plant

Not only are these flowers beautiful, the leaves are perfect for leaf-cutter bees! Hardenbergia violacea Image: Kym Nicolson

Ground-nesting bees are a tougher troop to cater for. Soil preferences vary wildly between species but a general rule is to ensure your soil is open, reasonably compacted and well-drained. Carpenter bees will thank you for adding a rotting log or two with a few holes drilled in for their homes. Leaf-cutter bees require another nesting necessity: broad, soft leaves. Plants like roses, Hardenbergia and Kennnedyia will be perfect for them.

Stingless treat

Remember how we said the majority of Australian bees are solitary? Well, time to talk about the minority. If you live along the top end or eastern side of Australia (except Victoria), you should consider keeping a stingless bee hive (Austroplebeia australis or Tetragonula carbonaria). These highly social bee species are closely related to the honeybee. As the name suggests, the stingers on these native species have atrophied so you don’t need to worry about a trip to Emergency with a hand the size of a baseball glove.

They are smaller than honeybees, less than 5 mm in length (except, of course, queen bee) and aren’t nearly as flashy; their abdomens range from black to brown and dark red. Just like honeybees, they produce honey and wax, although their wax is mixed with a resin that turns it into a substance called ‘cerumen’. They will make their nests in hollows in tree trunks, branches, rocks or man-made hollows. They store their honey in little, sealed pots rather than in open cells which make them less ideal as honey-producing candidates go, but they are just as fascinating to watch and quite friendly – they’re known for enjoying a quick drink of sweat if you’re feeling warm.

A stingless bee.

Austroplebeia australis Image: Dianne

So, there you have it, a quick guide to attracting native bees to your garden. Now hurry up and get planting so you can enjoy watching lovely lazy teddy bear bees (Amegilla bombiformus) bumble about in Eastern Australia or the bright green burrowing bees (Ctenocolletes smaragdinus) shine through the skies in the west.