The humble honeybee is taken for granted as a regular fixture in the garden. But imagine a world where we had to factor in human labour to pollinate our fruit trees. Fancy getting up each morning armed with a fine paintbrush and dabbing at blossoms all day? That's only one of many horticultural industries that rely on "free-bee" labour. Bees are essential as pollinators in gardens and orchards. And in pastures they pollinate clover, which is essential to the health of pastoral agriculture.
Bee populations have been hit hard by the varroa mite, which was discovered in Northland in 2000, and reached the South Island in 2006. Feral bee colonies have been decimated. Fortunately, beekeepers are on alert and are monitoring and treating beehives to keep them healthy. Hobbyist beekeepers who aren't regularly checking their hives can be caught out, and need to be on the national register to ensure their hives are properly monitored and maintained.
The honeybee (Apis mellifera) was introduced from England for horticultural crop pollination, the first documented introduction being in the Hokianga in 1839. We have 13 introduced bee species and 28 native bee species. Three of our native bees have a social structure (like the introduced honeybee and bumblebee) but the rest are solitary.
Bee droppings also feature in the health of the garden and contribute to the fertility of our soils, again a free-bee service. If you have a beehive in your garden then you are receiving an average of 45kg of bee droppings a year in a 25m radius around the hive. Bee manure is rich in nitrogen and provides natural fertiliser for your crops. Beehives can be designed into a system in a grid-like pattern to promote soil fertility in orchards and other horticultural crops.
There is clear evidence now of the steady decline of bee populations throughout the world. Human survival and the survival of bees are linked, and without the tireless work of bees our situation would be dire. The worldwide plight of bees has been a feature of films and documentaries urging action to halt their decline. In the United States, they are facing colony collapse disorder, with multiple causes identified, including the use of neonicatinoid pesticides. This chemical comes under many brand names, is chemically similar to nicotine, and is banned in some countries.
There are plenty of ways we can contribute in our own backyards to keep our bees happy and healthy. Planting bee-friendly gardens is a start. Avoiding pesticide use and aiming for an organic garden is another key to maintain and improve bee populations. Backyard fruit production has also been in decline because there are fewer bees. Fortunately urban beekeeping is becoming more popular. I'm lucky to have a couple of locals who supply our farmer's market in Grey Lynn with a central Auckland brand of honey from the flowers growing in the surrounding neighbourhood. It's one of the nicest I've tasted.
The flavour of honey is strongly influenced by the flowers the bees have sipped, such as the delicate clear borage honey, or an almost overpowering thyme honey harvested from Central Otago. In the north, Great Barrier Island was a commercial export honey producer in the old days, and my favourite manuka honey is produced there. Next time you're at a farmer's market, take the time to sample the honey, and give a vote of thanks to our industrious four-winged friends.
In flower gardens: Sow a bee-specific wild'flower mix. (Shop at wildforage.co.nz and the proceeds go to the National Beekeepers Association.)
In vege gardens: Plant purple flowering plants such as globe artichoke and chives. Locate plants such as alyssum, cleome and phacelia near veges.
In herb gardens: Try blue and purple flowering plants such as lavender, rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage and mints.
In orchards: Plant deciduous fruit trees. Herbal ley species such as borage, phacelia and comfrey attract bees throughout summer.
In food forests: Grow tagasaste (tree lucerne), which flowers in late winter.
In lawns and pasture: Sow clover. Grow a diverse pasture sward. Allow lawns to grow taller and dandelions and daisies to flower.
In native gardens: Plant manuka and kanuka, hebes, rata and pohutukawa.