Gardening: Plight of the bumble bee

By Leigh Bramwell


When my brother was little he had pet bees. No, I don't mean a hive. I mean he carried bumblebees around in his pockets, and always had them somewhere on his clothes. They had names and he talked to them, and was totally convinced it was the same bees that went out foraging that came back to his pocket later in the day.

This peculiar mutual attraction caused my mother some consternation but he never got stung, and when he was about 15 he became more interested in the birds and bees than just bees on their own, and the obsession was over.

I like bees well enough but I've never named any, and I don't put them in my pockets. It would be fair to say, in fact, I have taken them totally for granted, until I became aware in recent months of just how endangered they are becoming.

At the risk of offending every conservationist in the country, and possibly the world, I'm much more worried about bees than kiwis. (Actually, I've never been a big fan of kiwis, which are even less cuddly than bees.)

Our garden has been full of bees this past summer. Getting from one place to another has been an exercise in caution so as a) not to damage them and b) not to annoy them, but I accept having a problematic number of bees is not the norm.

To the contrary, bee death rates around the world are increasing. According to the National Beekeepers' Association website, the normal rate should be between 5 and 10 per cent, but we're now seeing figures of from 30-40 per cent in some places.

The New Zealand bee death rate is not up there yet, but threats like new exotic pathogens, loss of diverse forage, a new generation of insecticides, the stresses placed on hives through moving them, and introducing chemical controls for existing pathogens like the Varroa bee mite are all taking their toll.

Saving individual bees and carrying them around in our pockets is possibly not that helpful, but making our properties more bee-friendly is - although in my case that would probably mean suiting up before venturing into the garden.

Various initiatives have been launched over the past couple of years to encourage us to plant with bees in mind, and to that end, lists of best bee plants for residential gardeners have been published.

Despite that I need more bees like I need more weeds, I have every intention of doing my bit, and have been diligently studying the Urban Trees for Bees brochures online at www.nba.org.nz and www.treesforbeesnz.org. These guides are the result of collaboration between Federated Farmers, Landcare Research, the Oceania Pollinator Initiative, and many beekeepers, farmers and nursery owners.

They have lists of bee plants suitable for city and country gardens, and even if you couldn't give a toss about bees, you'll find them fantastic if, like me, you're constantly on the lookout for something new to plant.

The lists are divided into native and non-native, and give the common name, scientific name, life form (ie shrub, tree) height and months of flowering.

The site also gives lists of what not to plant, which may seem elementary but often isn't, especially if you're gardening in a new area, or if you're from another country.

As information on the site points out, almost all of the herb plants tend to have a lot of nectar and are particularly well loved by bees, especially rosemary, lavender and sage. The same is true for fruit trees like apples, plums and especially citrus fruits. Native plants for the garden such as New Zealand flax and the cabbage tree are also loved by bees.

If you're wondering about the real value of all this to bees and to New Zealand, consider for a moment that, according to the National Beekeepers Association, bees contribute around $5 billion annually to the New Zealand economy. Roughly one third of everything we eat is pollinated by bees, and, as Albert Einstein said: "If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live."

That won't suit me at all. I still have far too much to do. For example, establishing a beehive. This time last year, New Zealand had 388,369 registered beehives, and now beekeeping in urban areas is becoming the trendy thing to do, with city dwellers and schools joining in. Overseas evidence suggests hives in cities sometimes produce up to three times the amount of honey as bees in rural areas.

The Beekeepers Association says a hive in your backyard is a great way to pollinate your own fruit and vegetables. And hey, First Lady Michelle Obama keeps multiple beehives at the White House, so let's not let her upstage us.

Bee Week is in August. Tell your bees.

- Hamilton News

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