June 30: honeybee gardens

It’s the last day of June, the end of #BlogJune for this year. It’s been a challenge to keep up with a post every day, and we haven’t (as originally intended) managed to complete a farm or house task every day, but it’s been fun anyway. Today’s task has been using some of the kumquats I picked on the weekend, making most of them into candied kumquats, and some (along with some limes) into lime-and-kumquat-jelly (not marmalade, as I’ve sieved all but a few decorative strips of zest out of the jam, but basically lime marmalade flavoured – hopefully it sets). There are jars and bottles on the counter, cooling. I’ve also made a giant batch of vegetarian Boston Baked Beans, for a dinner party I’m attending this weekend. The whole house smells delightfully of spices, savoury beans, and citrus.


However, that is nto the topic of today’s post. Today I wanted to talk about bees again, and specifically about feeding your bees.


Bees consume pollen and nectar from flowering plants; the nectar gives them carbohydrates in the form of sugars, as well as minerals and essential vitamins, and the pollen provides them with protein. Most flowering plants produce nectar, and all produce pollen, but not all of these plants are useful for honeybees searching for food. On top of that, not all flower across the entire year, so if you want to keep your local bees fed it’s important to plant a variety of good bee fodder plants.


Bee plants include all sorts of flowers, from groundcovers and herbs to shrubs and trees, so no matter what type of garden you have you’ll be able to plant something for the bees. Here’s a list of some good ones for Perth. We plan to plant (or have already planted) most of these.


Casuarina: She-oaks (Casuarina and Allocasuarina species) are evergreen shrubs and trees, with the largest growing up to 35 m in height. They’re noted for the long, segmented branchlets they have which function as leaves. The branchlets (called cladodes) resemble conifer needles, even though she-oaks are flowering plants. The actual leaves are reduced to minute scales encircling each joint of the cladodes. Some she-oaks form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria, similar to legumes, so they’re a good plant to grow in poor soils. She-oaks don’t provide a lot of nectar, but they are a good pollen source, and as such are very important to bees, especially in spring when beehives are increasing their population.


Herbs: Basically all our culinary herbs are also great for bees, and most produce large quantities of both nectar and pollen. The best herbs for bees include thyme (Thymus spp.), oregano (Oreganum vulgare), and any type of sage (Salvia spp.) or mint (Mentha spp.). Borage (Borago officinalis) is also a good one, with beautiful little blue flowers which are very attractive to bees, and the leaves can be used in salads or cocktails for their cucumber-ish flavour.


Citrus: All citrus trees produce large quantities of fragrant nectar, which is why they are usually covered in honeybees when they flower. Any citrus tree you plant will be good for honeybees; if you’re not keen on loads of oranges, mandarins or grapefruit, try a lemon or lime tree, or a kumquat or calamondin. Citrus honey is pale in colour and mild flavoured, and is very highly regarded.


Lavender (Lavandula spp.): Lavender is a small, fragrant shrub which is highly attractive to bees (and the flowers and leaves can be used in human food too, as a flavouring). Lavender honey can be white to amber in colour and has an intense floral aroma. Lavender can be pruned into a formal box hedge, or left to itself to grow a slightly more uneven shape (which would fit in with a dune-vegetation or cottage style garden). Although it isn’t native, it can be grown with Australian natives and won’t look out of place, with its grey-green foliage.


Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Another fragrant, small shrub, rosemary is a magnet for honeybees – and the savoury flavour of the leaves mean its good for cooking with as well. Rosemary honestly grows like a weed in Perth – it will survive with little to no care, and if you occasionally water it or prune it a bit (for some leaves and sprigs to cook with), it will reward you with a mass of growth and lovely blue (or, depending on the variety, pink, lavender, or white) flowers. Rosemary honey has a slight herbal fragrance and flavour, and goes well with savoury as well as sweet dishes.


Grey Box (Eucalyptus microcarpa): Most Eucalyptus species are useful for nectar, but some produce better honey than others. Grey box is one of the best, flowering regularly and producing a richly flavoured honey with malt or caramel tones. It is a slow-growing tree, normally up to 25m in height (sometimes taller), native to south-eastern Australia. The flowers are white and appear from summer to winter. This is a very important honey plant in Victoria, less so in South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland; it is of minor significance in Western Australia, but will grow here quite happily.


Guava (Psidium guajava): A favourite with honeybees, the guava tree’s flowers provide high quantities of both nectar and pollen. Guava honey is runny, and has a mild, pleasant flavour. Guava is a genus of about 100 species of tropical shrubs and small trees. The leaves are opposite, simple, elliptic to ovate, 5-15 cm long. The flowers are white, with five petals and numerous stamens. The fruit is round to pear-shaped, from 3-10 cm in diameter, with a thin rind which may be pale green, yellow, or pink to red, depending on species. The flesh of the fruit is sweet, white or pink-orange in colour with many small hard seeds, and a strong, characteristic aroma.


Wattles (Acacia spp.): Most wattles produce masses of pollen and nectar when they flower, and are frequented by any honeybees in their vicinity. Acacia species (both African acacias and Australian wattles) range in size from shrubs through small trees to a few canopy trees in some regions. The flowers are arranged in inflorescences that may be either globular heads or cylindrical spikes. Each inflorescence may comprise three or more individual flowers, up to 130 or more. Acacia species flower throughout the year although most flower during spring and summer rather than during autumn and winter.


Roses (Rosa spp.): The humble (or not so humble) rose flowers throughout spring and summer, especially if properly cared for and pruned, and provide a rich source of pollen and some nectar. There are over 100 species of rose, and thousands of cultivars and varieties. They include rambling groundcovers, climbers, and woody shrubs, with flowers ranging from pinks and purples through to reds, oranges, yellows, and white. Many garden roses, in spite of their association with English gardens, are actually very hardy once established, and thrive in Perth’s hot, dry climate and sandy soils.


Banana plants (Musa spp.): You didn’t realise that banana plants were a great food source for honeybees as well as humans, did you? They provide large quantities of nectar and pollen, and grow quickly to flowering stage. I don’t have any information on the honey produced, only that it is produced in large quantities and that beehives kept in banana plantations tend to be healthy and well fed.


Bottlebrush (Callistemon spp.): I’ve never seen a bottlebrush shrub or tree flowering that didn’t have honeybees gathered on the flowers. They love it. Bottlebrushes range from small shrubs to small trees, and their flowers range from white or pale yellow through pink to dark red. They produce a mild flavoured, smooth tasting honey.


Passionfruit (Passiflora edulis): A climbing perennial, passionfruit – or, more accurately, the passionflowers – produce large quantities of both pollen and nectar for honeybees. Passionfruit is a beautiful vine, and will easily give you a green wall if you give it something to climb on. It is evergreen, and flowers twice a year in Perth. The fruit may be yellow or purple on the outside when ripe, with a dark yellow, deliciously sweet-sour pulp and many black seeds inside.


This list is far from complete – there are many, many flowering plants which make great food sources for honeybees. Almost all herbs, vegetables, and heirloom variety garden flowers are perfect nectar sources, as are most fruit trees. Apple trees, and stone fruit are very well regarded as bee fodder plants. Old fashioned cottage garden flowers like alyssum, honeysuckle, sunflowers, and daisies of all sorts attract and feed bees, as do many flowering bulbs (daffodils, lily of the valley, ..). Many of the modern ‘potted colour’ flowers that you can buy at nurseries don’t produce much nectar or pollen, putting all their energy into showy flowers instead; flowering trees or shrubs, or heirloom variety vegetables or garden flowers are a better choice.


So, to make a long story short, if you want to help the bees, but you don’t want to keep a hive yourself, the most useful thing you can do is plant some flowers. 🙂 Go forth and garden.



1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Blogjune 2016 condensation | Sonja Barfoed

Comments are closed.