Flowers for bees

Honey bee on lavender.

Honey bee on lavender.

One of Melbourne’s largest florists is behind a movement to encourage more people to grow bee-friendly plants and flowers in their home gardens while at the same time reducing the use of pesticides. By CHRISTINE BROWN-PAUL

The first recorded surviving introduction of European honey bees (Apis mellifera) into Australia was in 1822 aboard the Isabella. Since that time, honey bees have established widely throughout Australia. Commercial beekeeping has been highly successful thanks to the extensive areas of native vegetation, particularly eucalypts and other members of the Myrtaceae and Proteaceae. This abundant native floral resource produces large quantities of pollen and nectar, making this continent an ideal climatic and geographic region for the honey bee.

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSWDPI), honey bees play an essential role in agriculture, not only producing honey and beeswax, but also pollinating a vast number of food crops.

Without bees many vegetables and fruit would never reach harvest stage. The members of the pumpkin family provide classic examples. These all have separate male and female flowers and, unless the pollen gets carried from the male to the female, cucumbers, zucchinis, pumpkins, etc., cannot develop.

A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but the best and healthiest food—fruits, nuts and vegetables—are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90% of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.

Tonio Borg, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, calculates that bees contribute more than €22 billion annually to European agriculture. Worldwide, bees pollinate human food valued at more than €265 billion.

About 65% of the crops grown in Australia depend on bee pollination. Our honey bee industry produces between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes of honey annually. Approximately 4630 tonnes is exported per year (of the three years to March 2014); 70% of Australian honey is produced from native flora. While honey is the major commercial output of the honey bee industry, there are a number of other products which also add to the income of honey bee businesses, and include paid pollination services, beeswax production, queen bee and packaged bee sales.

Beeline to zero
Around the world, Apis mellifera—the honey bee, native to Europe, Africa and Western Asia—is disappearing. Signs of decline also appear now in the eastern honey bee, Apis cerana.

It has been estimated that one of every three mouthfuls of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators, especially bees, for a successful harvest. However, for most of last decade, beekeepers, primarily in the United States and Europe, have been reporting annual hive losses of 30% or higher, substantially more than is considered normal or sustainable.

Colony Collapse Disorder.

Colony Collapse Disorder.

In late 2006, beekeepers from North America reported that 30-50% of their bees had vanished. Called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), it can affect European honey bees. Indicators of CCD include absence of all adult bees and the presence of capped brood still in the hive. This is a telltale sign, as a healthy colony does not leave unhatched young.

A recent study that found unprecedented levels of agricultural pesticides—some at toxic levels—in honey bee colonies is prompting entomologists to look more closely at the role of neonicotinoids in current bee declines. Some studies have indicated that neonicotinoids can lead to a sharp decline in queen bees in colonies and can also interfere with the ability of bees to navigate back to their hives.

“More research needs to be conducted into whether neonicotinoids, particularly in combination with other pesticides, may suppress the immune system of bees at ‘sub-lethal’ levels, enabling diseases to take hold,” says James Frazier, a professor of entomology at Pennsylvania State University.

One characteristic of CCD is pre-departure stress in colonies, mainly involving drought or poor nutrition. Bees may become malnourished on a monoculture diet when they are used to pollinate a single crop, such as almonds in California in the US, instead of foraging a variety of plants. Another factor implicated in CDD is contamination. Robber bees often visit the hives of collapsed colonies, become infected themselves then take pests to new sites.

Thankfully, Australian bees have so far escaped CDD due to our relative isolation.

Bee on thyme flower.

Bee on thyme flower.

Flowers Across Melbourne
One Australian company recognising the importance of bees as key to its livelihood is Flowers Across Melbourne, which shares its experience with other flower lovers through online articles and blogs, many of which stress the importance of attracting bees into home gardens.

Flowers Across Melbourne is one of the city’s largest online florists. Founded in 2009 by Nadina Hughes and Rob Lambert, the online business aims to provide a convenient way to order flower delivery to people within Melbourne.

“It was started when we still owned a bricks and mortar store, which we eventually sold to concentrate on the online side of the business. When we sold the shop, we initially ran it as a home-based business, but we outgrew that and moved into a warehouse facility in Thornbury,” says Rob.

“We aim to provide an alternative to the multi-national relay style services that take orders and then route them through to individual florists. All of our gifts are created and delivered directly by us, which allows us to keep prices reasonable and quality of both product and service consistent.

“We operate purely online, delivering fresh flowers daily, directly from our florist workshop in Thornbury, Melbourne. We source locally grown product where possible and aim to provide the friendly service of a local florist with the convenience of online shopping.

“We deliver six days per week, including same day delivery and have delivered close to 100,000 flower arrangements throughout Melbourne,” he says.

“Our customers are mostly female, looking to send something to friends or family in Melbourne as a nice gesture that won’t break the bank. We have customers from all over the world that need to send flowers throughout Melbourne. Our customers care about quality, speed of service and great customer service, so we always strive to deliver in those areas.”

Rob says that like most businesses, there have been a number of challenges to face on the road to success.

Bee on peppermint  flower.

Bee on peppermint flower.

“It’s always a challenge to provide transparent, clear communications with our customers, so that expectations are met, both with the flowers themselves, and also when it comes to delivery times etc. Most of our customers are quite knowledgeable about flowers, but when some are used to grabbing flowers at the supermarket, which are usually full of colour but tend to be near the end of their lifespan—whereas we’re sending out really fresh flowers, usually in bud form, that can be a bit greener, but will generally last much longer—there can be some confusion. Communicating what to expect when the customer isn’t in a shop buying an item can be an ongoing challenge,” he says.

“Also, because 98% of our deliveries are made in-house via our team of drivers, every day can be a huge logistical challenge. We need to ensure good delivery times, especially as the flowers themselves arrive early in the morning, then the florists create the arrangement and it is delivered the same day—with orders coming in all the way up until 2pm for same day delivery.

“We’ve had to build customised systems to help deal with these challenges, and scaling those systems as our business grows can be quite hard at times,” Rob says.

So why does Rob think it’s important for growers to encourage bees?

“We’re mostly about encouraging our customers to grow bee-friendly plants and flowers in their home gardens, while reducing the use of pesticides. It’s an easy way to have a vibrant, living backyard that contributes to our eco-system in a positive way,” he says.

“Bees are important to our eco-system, and they provide pollination for certain food and crops, not to mention they’re fascinating to watch as they go about their bee business! There have been a number of articles about declining bee populations over the past few years, so it’s worth the effort to help increase the population a bit.”

Rob says that some of the best ways gardeners can attract bees into their gardens is by planting bee-friendly plants and herbs.

“Bees not only love natives such as Wattle and Banksia, but also love flowering herbs, such as oregano and thyme, which creates a win-win for us, delicious fresh herbs that go great on pizza, and healthy bee colonies,” he says.

“To steer clear of pesticides that might be harmful to bees, try natural solutions such as Asters and Dill, which attract natural predators to nasties like aphids and whitefly.”

Bee on Origanum majorana.

Bee on Origanum majorana.

Bee aware
Planting many flowers in the garden is proven to attract pollinators as well as mixing flowers among the vegetables.

So what other advice should gardeners keep in mind?

Behind the scenes researcher, blogger and website specialist at Flowers Across Melbourne, Justin Hughes, has compiled a number of articles available on the company’s website, including Flowers for bees and Flowers instead of pesticides.

The first article is a guide for selecting the best Australian suited flowers and plants to benefit the bees, pollinators and gardens while the second article looks at how to use the best Australian suited flowers and plants as an alternative to pesticides.

“Without the Aussie native bees or introduced honeybees we wouldn’t have a flower industry, let alone life as we know it. Australia is one of the top 10 honey-producing countries in the world; honey bees are essential to both the agricultural and horticultural segments of the flower industry thanks to their pollination services, not to mention the raw flavoured and unflavoured honeys, royal jelly and pollen,” Justin says.

“Urban environments also benefit from their activities. Planting bee forages for honeybee nutrition can offer major benefits to the industry and to society as a whole. Although Australia’s existing resource of flora is plentiful and well-suited to the needs of the honeybee industry, its future is precarious.”

Justin says there are a number of key tips that home gardeners should follow to help attract bees into their gardens.

“Strike a good balance between native and exotic plants. Native plants for their drought tolerance and attractiveness to native pollinators, and exotics for their exquisite beauty, medicinal and culinary properties,” he says.

“Variety is the spice of bee life. Bees like options, have at least four different species flowering at any given time throughout the year (except in cold-climates where this can cause problems for the bees). Exercise variety in the flowers’ shapes and length tubes.

“Bee-loving plants are better in groups. Plant them in clumps with one metre diameters if you can, in layers or at least in multiple numbers to attract the most bees for your efforts. It’s OK to intersperse regular old flowers in these beds, too,” Justin says.

“Pollen makes bees thirsty, give them water. Soak the rocks, pebbles or sand at the base of the plants, but don’t drown the bees.”

Bee on Origanum vulgare.

Bee on Origanum vulgare.

According to Justin, it’s important to avoid the use of pesticides, as they may kill the pollinators and potentially harm consumers.

“Be aware when buying plants, as it is possible that some plants are treated with systemic pesticides which can last for years, some plants can even contain the Neonicotinoids in their cells after being grown from Neonicotinoid drenched seeds (these are most likely commercial crop seeds) and may transfer to nectar and pollen, which could cause harm to the pollinators, and the use of these pesticides are currently being reviewed by Australian and European Authorities,” Justin says.

“If you want to be certain that your plants do not contain harmful pesticides we recommend that you grow your own plants from seeds or purchase plants from an organic supplier.

“Nature has been doing this forever, certain flowers, plants and conditions help attract predators, which in turn increases the biodiversity of your garden by preying on our most common garden pests and restoring the natural balance,” he says.

“Predators are great at preventing a single species from becoming dominant, which includes other predators…there’s always a bigger bug.

“By improving the soil [natural organic methods are best] your plants will become stronger, healthier and more resistant to pests and disease, add companion plants that deter pests and benefit nearby plants as well as growing flowering plants to attract bees and pollinators are all great alternatives to pesticides,” Justin says.

“With all of these methods combined you can create a more vibrant ecosystem that will not only benefit you and your family but also nature.” Ω

PH&G July 2015 / Issue 157