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GARDENING: All abuzz about bees

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Bee populations are threatened by climate change, pesticides and habitat loss - gardeners can help by planting bee-friendly gardens for these important pollinators

August 17 day is World Honey Bee Day. The celebration was initially designated as Honey Bee Awareness Day and National Honey Bee Day in the US.

Beekeepers petitioned the US Department of Agriculture for a day to honour the hard-working honey bee and the beekeeping profession.

Today, people around the world choose the third Saturday in August to honour bees, their delectable honey and the beekeepers who tend the hives.

A beekeeper tends the hives at Babylonstoren near Paarl. Picture: Kay Montgomery

Honey bees

Across the globe, insect populations are under threat and scientists are concerned about the survival of important pollinators, such as bees, which are responsible for food crop pollination.

“Some 80% of indigenous flowering plants in Africa benefit from honey bee pollination and about one-third of all food produced is the result of commercial honey bee pollination,” says Mike Allsopp, a honey bee specialist at South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council.

There are two indigenous honey bees in South Africa Apis mellifera capensis and the African honey bee Apis mellifera scutellata.

The Cape honey bee, an important pollinator for fynbos and agricultural crops, was originally found only in the Western Cape and parts of the Eastern Cape. The African honey bee is found in most of South Africa and visits indigenous and exotic flowers for pollen and nectar.

Aloes varieties provide sustenance for bees during the autumn and winter months. Pictured, krantz aloe (Aloe arborescens). Picture: Kay Montgomery

Pioneering campaigns

A city bee garden featured at the Royal Horticultural Society Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival last month. The trendy garden was designed to attract the bees while still providing a place of rest for the human visitors. Honeycomb shapes were used to link elements of the garden. The Urban Pollinator Garden was relocated to a local hospice after the show.

In the Netherlands, Rotherham has sown 12km of wild flowers on its verges to help pollinators. “Bus stops” have become “bee stops” in the Dutch city of Utrecht, where sedums have been planted on the bus stop roofs.

An 11km “bee corridor” of wild flowers through parks and green spaces in the north-west of London is being planted to encourage the insect’s population. Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Pictorial Meadows, working in partnership with local authorities in Woking, Swindon, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Glasgow, have transformed roundabouts across the country into wild flower gardens.

The British Beekeepers Association, together with a Winnie the Pooh illustrator, concerned about the decline of bee colonies and hoping to encourage youngsters and their families to plant wild flower gardens, have produced Winnie the Pooh and the Missing Bees. The new story highlights Pooh and Piglet’s concern about the shortage of honey in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Paris has hundreds of bee hives in gardens and on rooftops around the city, including Notre Dame, where there are three bee hives on the roof over the sacristy. Despite the devastating fire and the smoke, heat and water, beekeeper Nicolas Geant who looks after the hives, says the bees are alive.

Bee sanctuaries

Honey bees were introduced to Robben Island in 1970. It is now a protected nature conservation area and World Heritage Site. Bees were initially used commercially for research, and later for honey, by prison warders on the island.

Businesses, hotels and restaurants are establishing bee sanctuaries on their rooftops across our cities. The Johannesburg Bee Sanctuary provides a safe haven for bees where they are rehabilitated, with hives relocated to farmers for pollination work.

The historical walled garden at Babylonstoren near Paarl has six hives of different shapes to illustrate the development of beekeeping.

Babylonstoren has also incorporated the flow hive system, in which beekeepers can tap honey without disturbing the bees.

Create a bee garden

How can you make your garden more bee-friendly?

Gardeners can help the bees by choosing bee-friendly plants for city gardens. Picture: Lukas Otto

Grow indigenous and exotic flowers to supply nectar and pollen throughout the year. Aloes and early flowering trees and shrubs, such as wild pear (Dombeya rotundifolia), the forest elder (Nuxia floribunda), sweet thorn (Vachellia karroo), buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) and weeping sage (Buddleja auriculata) provide forage for bees in winter. Planted early, Iceland poppies are a great source of pollen for bees.

Honey bees pollinate fruit and nut trees (almonds, macadamia, citrus, peach, plums, pears and apples); vegetables (cucumber, squash, zucchini, watermelon); berries; herbs (thyme, marjoram, chives, origanum, lavender, borage) and flowers. Fynbos plants are a valuable nectar source.

A bee-friendly garden favours yellow, white, blue and purple flowers, such as alyssum, borage, felicia, gazania, lavender, polygala, protea, rosemary, sage, salvia, scabious, sunflower and thyme.

Flowers often have nectar guides that are invisible to the human eye that reflect ultraviolet light, signposts directing bees to the source of pollen or nectar. White flowers absorb ultraviolet and appear blue-green to bees.

Bees have different tongue lengths. Some bees prefer the flat, open flowers of the daisy family, while others visit tubular flowers of agapanthus, fuchsia, gladiolus, tree fuchsia (Halleria lucida), lion’s ear (Leonotis leonurus), lavender, salvia and watsonia.

Plant flowers, preferably scented, in large clusters in your garden, on your verge and in pots on the patio.

Bees need a shallow water source year round with small stones as landing pads to prevent drowning.

Do not use pesticides or fungicides in or near a bee garden.

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