Top 10 Tips for Planting for Honeybees

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Having bees in your garden will benefit both honeybees and your plants.
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“Planting for Honeybees” by Sarah Wyndham Lewis teaches gardeners to use their backyards to give the honeybee population a helping hand.

Planting for Honeybees (Quadrille, 2018) by Sarah Wyndham Lewisis a guide to help gardeners attract these friendly buzzing bees to their yards all season long. Wyndham Lewis also gives readers a look into the world and history of honeybees, showing why it is so important that they stick around. In the following excerpt, she gives her top 10 tips for planting a garden for honeybees.

If you read nothing else in this whole book, please read this chapter. Armed with these guiding principles, you’ll be able not only to plan your own space, but also to impress friends with brief but impressively knowledgeable lectures on how to plant specifically for honeybees!

1. Quantity, Quality and Variety

Plentiful supplies of varied forage are essential to help honeybees withstand the impact of disease and harmful environmental factors. In a single foraging trip, a honeybee will visit around 100 flowers, and she (all worker bees are female) will make around 10 to 15 trips in a day. So that’s at least 1,000 flowers a day, and this is a conservative estimate – it’s said that a honeybee might visit up to 5,000 flowers on a productive day.

2. Four-Season Planting

Although March to September are the key months for honeybees, they will fly whenever the temperature is above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), even in the depths of winter. So early- and late-flowering plants are especially valuable. Ideally, plant ‘sequentially’ so that there is always something in flower.

3. Mow Less and Love Weeds

Many so-called lawn ‘weeds’ provide precious forage. Mow lawns but less often and leave some areas to grow wilder. This encourages useful species to grow, such as daisies, trefoil, clovers and especially dandelions, which are vitally important as an early season nectar source.

4. Bees See Blue

The photoreceptors in honeybees’ eyes see from yellow, blue and green right up into the ultraviolet (UV) light scale. This makes blue, violet, purple and white flowers especially attractive to them. They can also distinguish orange blooms, but the color red looks black to a bee, making red flowers unappealing. Some flowers exploit UV light to alert bees. The outer edges of the petals reflect UV light, while the nectar-rich centers absorb it to present a dark patch (rather like a bull’s eye), signaling the perfect landing pad.

5. ‘Flower Fidelity’

Honeybees only visit one type of flower in any one foraging trip. This is called ‘flower fidelity’ and is what makes them such effective pollinators. By planting large clumps or ‘drifts’ of single species you can save the bees’ energy and optimize each of their trips.

6. Native and Non-Native

Honeybees have evolved alongside certain flower species in every region. The flowers, too, are perfectly attuned to that region. For these reasons, some people favor using only native plantings in their gardens. However, widespread climate change means that many non-native species have now become very valuable additions to our pollinator forage and are widely accepted by honeybees as part of a changing flora.

7. Think Bushes and Trees

Bees are naturally tree dwellers and feeders and, if space allows, bee-friendly plantings should always start with a framework of durable, perennial forage from bushes and trees. A single lime (linden) tree in flower provides the same amount of forage as 3000 square meters (32,292 square feet) of wildflower meadow (which is about half the size of a football pitch)!

8. Keep it Simple

With shorter tongues than bumblebees or butterflies, honeybees often can’t feed from complex flower structures. Showy, highly bred ornamental flowers often give little or no forage. Generally, stay close to the original wild or simpler forms of flowers where nectar and pollen are easily accessible.

9. Water, Water

Bees don’t store water in the hive. They forage for it as needed and they often choose surprising sources. If you don’t have a pond, a bowl of pebbles full of rainwater provides a good stop off. In hot weather, water brought back by forager bees is sprinkled over the brood cells (nests) and then fanned by worker bees to cool the area through evaporation. Honey stored in the hive is diluted before being eaten, so water gathering is often the reason for bees flying on warm winter days.

10. Garden Organically

Read up on organic gardening techniques. There are many wildlife-friendly alternatives, but if you absolutely must use chemicals, follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully to prevent overdosing. As far as is possible, source your seeds, plants bulbs and potting compost from organic nurseries, this will ensure that they have never been treated with insecticides.

More from: Planting for Honeybees

The History of Bees with Plants and People
Remarkable Facts about Honeybees

Excerpted with permission from Planting For Honeybees by Sarah Wyndham Lewis, published by Quadrille March 2018, RRP $16.99 hardcover.

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