My Mum’s Garden is a Bee Hotel

Around lunchtime on 27 September I missed two calls from my mum. They were followed by a series of emergency texts.

12:39 pm: We have our first blue banded for the season!!!

12:39 pm: YAY!!!

12:52 pm: So flighty!

For anyone not familiar with mum’s shorthand, the messages might have been difficult to interpret. Why all the excitement? Others would reserve her lopsided ratio of exclamation marks to actual words for a phone fight or a celebrity sighting. But mum had just seen a bee. A blue and black striped hunk of a bee named Amegilla spp., or the blue banded. The garden had exploded with flax lily flowers after a string of warm days and this meant only one thing: native bee season was back.

Leon Tolstoy was a beekeeper. Martha Stewart does it. Aristotle, Sir Edmond Hillary and Thomas Edison all kept bees for honey. My mum has made a garden in seaside Adelaide that’s a five star hotel for all number of flying insects: leaf cutters, mimic wasps, cuckoo bees, and her undisputed favourite, the blue banded bee. But building and maintaining her native bee friendly garden is a thing she does for love, not honey.

Mum first noticed a blue banded bee about four years ago in our flax lily patch. She was curious;

I suspected that we had some native bees, but identifying the blue banded bees was a moment of joy. They make me smile. They zoom around in erratic zigzags and then seem to have a moment of seriousness where they hover and align themselves with a flower target. That I can identify them by their shadow perhaps suggests I like these bees.

Blue banded bee, Photo by Jane Wilson
Blue banded bee (hovering), Photo by Jane Wilson

Watch a blue banded bee closely and it reveals itself to you in one hundred ways. Their stripes are opaline, projecting an array of colours that change with the light. Some have corroded blonde clumps of hair on their heads, which are styled unwittingly by breezes and dampness into something that channels The Clash. Their foraging is chaotic and their buzzing rowdy as they career from flower to flower.

Most noticeably, they’re solitary bees. They don’t make honey, or form hives, which makes them difficult to keep in the traditional way. But mum has created a stable habitat for the blue bandeds, to which they return yearly, and that’s almost better than second best.

If you want to plant a garden for native bees, Monina Gilbey is your go-to woman. Her award-winning Green Gecko Studios, based in Adelaide, specialises in edible and native garden design, so it was only a matter of time before she crossed paths with native bees. Her use of selective plantings brought the bees in, and she began to take note. They arrived with shapes, colours and habits that were wildly different from the European honeybee.

A certain blue and black bee was amongst the most striking. “I saw my first blue banded bee a number of years ago while working in the Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden at Woodend Primary School, in Adelaide’s south,” says Monina. It’s a garden she maintains with the help of students from years 3 to 5. “I heard the bee first, as they’re quite loud. It was pollinating our tomatoes – which was such a joy to see!”

Joy is a word that’s used much and often when it comes to bees. They’re the ultimate altruists, keeping our great crop cycles turning each year. The dollar value of insect pollination for food crops in global terms is in the high tens of billions annually, and the unassuming work of bees accounts for a big chunk of this. Native bees do their part for pollination, and sometimes they do it better than honeybees.

Dr Katja Hogendoorn studies native bees as potential crop pollinators. Her research at the University of Adelaide has proved, for instance, that pollination by blue banded bees can make crops like melons, capsicum and eggplants larger, more symmetrical and tastier. “The effect is not only on yield, but also on quality,” explains Katja. Blue bandeds have a way with greenhouse tomato crops too, where they can be used in lieu of an electric toothbrush to improve pollination. Results show that bee-pollinated greenhouse tomatoes are tastier in that hard to buy, real-tomato-smell-from-childhood kind of way.

Blue banded bee and Salvia, Photo by Jane Wilson

An advantage that blue banded bees offer is buzz pollination. Like botanical wranglers, they’ll grab onto a flower for dear life and shake their mighty flight muscles at astonishing rates, causing the flower to wobble and in the process liberating pollen. For flowers with tight pollen clusters the action improves pollination on the basis of odds alone. More pollen will be dislodged to find its way from the stamen to the stigma with buzz pollination.

As a general rule, honeybees specialise in scattering loose pollen, whereas blue banded bees (and other native bees) are the experts when it comes to obstinate flowers.

Katja’s research is linked to future food security, but the beauty of bees is at the heart of her work. “What mesmerises us about bees is that their existence is intricately linked with flowers. We love flowers, and we only see bees when we see flowers,” she says. “They’re also clearly out there with a purpose – collecting pollen and nectar for their offspring. Blue banded bees have extra appeal because of their colour, size (a bit more than a centimetre) and they way they hover.” One of Katja’s aims is to inspire others to look for native bees, plant bee plants and make native bee hotels.

That’s right, stop for a moment. Push your to-do list to one side and Google ‘bee hotel’. These hotels are a kind of off-the-grid Airbnb for native bees. They range from budget models to luxury high-rise stacks constructed from pallets, and they’re simple enough to make with a drill and some recycled materials: a wooden apple crate, lengths of bamboo and a mix of logs. The big plus is that they encourage Australian native bees, and there are more than 2500 species of them, to spend time in your garden.

You’ll also need some flowers, and the ones blue banded bees prefer are blue. The trick is to build up patches of these plants in your garden, provide nesting habitats and avoid using insecticides. Mum’s approach is a successful model to follow. What she’s created over time is coastal scrub as opposed to a formal space, but she has carefully chosen plants to suit her seaside location and to attract native bees.

“I’ve set up patches of knobby club rushes, flax lilies and, rightly or wrongly, I’ve planted purple salvias to prolong the stay of the bees,” says mum. “We also have some very old rosemary bushes in the front yard and I noticed that the blue bandeds also used the bright red salvia last year.”

To achieve an edible, bee friendly garden, Monina suggests trying vegetables from the Solanaceae family, like tomatoes and eggplants, together with flowering plants like goodenias (a native groundcover) and grevilleas. “Planting native grasses and providing bare dirt for nests in your garden will also provide much needed habitat for the blue banded bees.”

The passion that blue banded bees rally may well be about noticing small parts of the world, and realising their connectedness with larger cycles. “It is such a delight to see bees busily working on a warm day, knowing that their work helps all of us gardeners to have better quality produce,” says Monina. She recalls a moment earlier this year, when she was looking at the native grasses in the Woodend kitchen garden. “I noticed some male blue banded bees clinging to the grasses with their mandibles. I asked one of my students to take a look and he was amazed. He said he felt honoured to be able to sit there and watch them. We couldn’t watch them for too long, as they flew away once their bodies had warmed from the morning sun.” Small moments, you could say, that have a loud echo.

Mum also thinks of bees in terms of connectedness. “The buzz pollination work of blue bandeds helps our flax lilies to fruit. This means blue tongue lizards and the crested pigeons, which have a nest nearby, clamber through the ruby saltbush to get at the fruit.” Time spent in mum’s garden has shown me that the blue bandeds are particular about which flowers they’ll approach, the right temperatures for foraging, and factors like wind velocity. For mum, the bees are constant reminders of the very subtle yet important differences that every part brings to the workings of even a small habitat. “We are not nearly enough protective of these things,” she worries.

But from what I see of the work of these women – mum, Monina and Katja – I’d say that their passion itself has a loud enough echo. Almost a contagious buzz.

Blue Banded bee, Photo by Jane Wilson