To Bee Or Not To Bee?


Bee enjoying Melaleuca blossoms

Alright, so the title is a little cheesy. But the question does remain. Where would we be without bees?

The gardens of my childhood were filled with bees. Hot summer afternoons in gardens buzzing with their industry. Lying on our backs in the clover, we marvelled at their meandering flight paths, little back legs bundled with yellow pollen. Our raids on the strawberry patch were more deliciously dangerous for the possibility of being stung. When the inevitable happened we endured the pain of having the sting carefully scraped from throbbing limb with a knife. A paste of bicarbonate of soda and water slathered on the wound followed, to soothe the sting. After which we suffered a parental lecture about the poor bee losing its life as a consequence of our carelessness, since they die shortly after delivering that venomous barb.

And honey sandwiches! Who could forget the real honey of our childhoods?

Ahh, those idyllic bee-ful days of my childhood!

A dear friend started me on this path down memory lane recently when she suggested I look at the important role bees play in plant fertilisation.

So, where are they now? What’s going on? Even Spring in my tiny garden doesn’t deliver on the childhood promise of swarms of bees, nor butterflies for that matter, but that’s for another post. Why does it matter?

Bees and fertilisation 

It matters because bees are prolific pollinators, playing a huge role in the fertilisation of flowers, vegetables and other food crops.  I’m sure I’m not telling you something you don’t already know.

But did you know that European honey bees (Apis mellifera) [introduced to Australia around 1822] are incredibly productive? A single colony can easily contain 10,000-60,000 working bees. Each female worker lives for roughly a month and is so effective at pollination that she may forage more than 500 flowers in a round trip. A single bee may range as far as 10km in the search for pollen and nectar. No wonder they say ‘as busy as a bee!’

Furthermore, the familiar European honey bee is not the only kid on the fertilisation block. More recently, attention is being drawn to our native Australian bees. I discovered to my amazement that in Australia we have over 1,600 species of native bee with endearing names like the Teddy Bear and Blue Banded bee, some of which I’ve seen around our local park Callistemons or Bottlebrush (below). They’re an important pollinator for our unique flora.

IMG_0487 (1)

Increasingly our native bees, like the stingless varieties (genera Tetragonula – previously called Trigona – and Austroplebeia), are also proving to be valuable pollinators of crops such as macadamias, mangos, watermelons and lychees . Their impressive effectiveness as pollinators has even seen them employed by pollination services for commercial growers of these crops. Some native bees have the added advantage of being ‘buzz pollinators’ whereby the vibration of their wings facilitates fertilisation, a feat almost impossible for honey bees.

What’s the reason for the global bee decline?

It appears there’s not one single factor. Dr Les Davies, Chief Regulatory Scientist from APVMA, suggests ‘mutiple interacting pressures which may include habitat loss and disappearance of floral resources, honeybee nutrition, climate change, bee pests and pathogens [like Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which has wiped out millions of bees in North America], miticides and other chemicals intentionally used in hives and bee husbandry practices, as well as agricultural pesticides,’ are possible factors in the decline of bees. He makes a strong case for being informed about what we spray on our gardens [if this is a path we choose], advocating ‘a need to ensure that a range of regulatory, industry stewardship and educational measures are in place,’ to reduce the risks from pesticides.

My role as a gardener

We all have a stake in maintaining our bio system. When it comes to  ‘bee-ing’ a successful gardener, a bit of research has turned up  a number of ways I can contribute. It makes sense to plant any garden with bees in mind. A mix of flowers among the vegies will ensure bees are attracted to the garden and will do their bit to ensure bountiful fruit and vegetable crops.

I will be even more mindful of using chemicals in the garden after reading up on bees. While I’ve always preferred natural pest control, heeding Dr Davies’ advice of being more informed about the sprays, fungicides and other chemical products for garden use seems crucial. Especially given I consume the crops I grow, along with a variety of other insects and useful micro organisms who dine on my garden.

“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”
Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee




Healthy Gardens

The travesty of imported honey

How to attract bees

Honeybee Research

Medicinal Benefits of Honey

Bee Biology Research



41 responses to “To Bee Or Not To Bee?

  1. So true. I was excited to see honey bees in my garden last year, because I hadn’t seen any for ages! And I remember them being around in their 100s when I was a youngster. Most of the pollination has been done by small bumblebees. I don’t know what species – I must do some research! Moth numbers are decreasing too. It used to be hazardous to leave the windows of lighted rooms open on warm evenings because the silly things would come inside, blunder around, and have to be caught and released outside again. Big brown moths were very common. Now they’re a rare sight. They’re important because they pollinate night-flowering plants.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the moths were in abundance in my early years too Denise. Perhaps some species are like the cicadas – only appearing in cycles of a few years? Likewise, I will do a little research on it. I can’t help wondering if the same hazards – pesticides, loss of habitat, mono culture – apply to them as well.
      Funny! I’m visiting your blog as your comment came through.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love bees too! Not sure what’s happening in Greece, I must look it up. Honey is one of the traditional products of Greece, the most popular being thyme, which the bees find growing wild on barren ( non-wooded) mountainsides. So I hope we’re looking after those bees well! I love picking lavender with them buzzing around me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember reading about honey when I studied ancient Greece in high school Marina. The travesty here in Australia is, although we produce beautiful honey, big supermarkets are importing honey from China and blending it with our local honey because of cost and continuity of supply. The trouble with that is the potential for pathogens and also the loss of revenue to our own industry. According to my sources (at the bottom of this page) ‘Some countries even ban imports of Chinese honey because it is notorious not just for adulteration, but also because of the pesticide and herbicides often found in Chinese honey. Globalisation has its drawbacks.
      I like to imagine you among the lavender and thyme surrounded by bees1


  3. Hi Robyn, I’ve missed visiting you and wanted to stop through to say hello. This is an interesting article which stimulated my memory, not necessarily on bees (allergic) but honey. I haven’t had honey in so many years and in addition to it’s many uses I recall my grandmother using it for medicinal purposes to soothe a sore throat, etc.

    I wasn’t aware of the many varieties of bees but in reference to the powerful quote at the end of your post I remember either reading or watching a program on the importance of bees to our survival. They really are fascinating creatures and mankind could take a leaf out of their book by learning how to work together better as a society.

    Have a nice weekend!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Stephanae, so nice to get such a lengthy reply from you. I too, remember honey and lemon for sore throats. And how right you are about the social aspect of bees. They are just amazing insects the way they work together for the greater good of the hive. There is definitely a lesson there for humankind.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am definitely going to make room for a Callistemon in my garden. Lots of bees and pollinators here and butterflies love the Spirea Japonica and Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) both wild flowers and some consider weeds, but I’m happy to give them a home 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are so many varieties of Callistemon. I think this is a popular hybrid called Captain Cook but can’t be sure. I’m not familiar with the two plants you mention that attract the bees. I’ll have to look them up. How good to hear you have plenty of pollinators.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Im not afraid of many things, but bees scare me a bit. Only because Ive been stung so many times. I used to aggravate them as a kid,but i stopped as I gotten older.

    anyway, Its terribly sad that bees are dying off. The world wont survive without them. I blame monsanto and their allies at the fda.

    Thank you for this knowledge bomb.I love the photos. I miss gardening as a kid. I think when I get my life together, Im going to grow crops again. I mean it. lol

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was surprised too Rachel. Like your native bees they are mostly small and bear little resemblance to European bees and don’t produce much honey. Aboriginal people prized the ‘sugar bag’ from their hives, it was one of the few sources of sweetness in their diets. I like the idea of them being stingless too.


  6. Bee-ing sounds much more preferable 🙂 This post is packed with sweet insights into the life of bees. And some sour ones too. I can’t imagine a world without bees and it seems there wouldn’t be one either. How powerful is that? Only four years remain in the absence of bees. Great post Robyn.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Gail! While the quote published in 1901 is not backed by recent scientific research and is now regarded as somewhat hyperbolic, it is a worrying thought. Not all fertilisation is done by bees but there’s no doubt without them our world would be very different. Not one I’d like to imagine.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve heard a lot about colony collapse syndrome. It’s interesting you say that there’s no one cause. I guess that means there’s also no one solution. I think it’s great that as a gardener, you’re thinking about what you can do to help. If all gardeners had the same attitude, it might go a significant way to helping the bees.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Few people understand how important the pollinators are in this world. Many years ago I planted my first peony bush and when it bloomed, proceeded to spray the ants from the blooms. I didn’t understand until the next year and I had no buds, that the ants were the pollinators! Lesson learned! And butterflies and bees and other beneficial insects are so important even though they are minuscule to the giants who garden among them. I will read this again, and take serious note not to step on bees busy helping my gardens grow.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s right Clare! I only had a vague idea of how many different ways pollination takes place. Once I began looking into it I was amazed and worried about what’s happening in the natural world. While the quote predicting what a world without bees is a bit hyperbolic, there’s no doubt the consequences would be dire.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It certainly will. I wrote a chapter in A Berkshire Tale about the Berkshire Botanical Garden. It’s about Monarch Butterflies and how the loss of milkweed fields is causing them to disappear. ZuZu asks, “What would the world be like without butterflies?” The children decide to grow their own field at the farm much to ZuZu’s delight.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Clare I think you wrote a post about the milkweed and butterflies if I remember correctly. What a lovely thing for the children in the story to do. Each of us making a small contribution can add up to a big change. I don’t want to imagine a world without butterflies ZuZu – or one without bees.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting Charlotte. I am a novice when it comes to bees, beyond knowing they fill an important role in agriculture and horticulture. I was surprised by some of the information my research revealed, especially about native Australian bees. My living circumstances prevent me from becoming a backyard bee keeper but my sister is in the throes of setting up some hives on her rural property in Southern New South Wales. She was given some boxes and other equipment. After doing some research of her own she has decided to try the Kenya Top Bar method which, according to is a more natural way of keeping bees. Have you heard of it?


      • Charlotte, I find this so interesting. I guess if you are not expecting honey on a commercial scale then the top bar method could work well? I’m not aware of the Langstroth method but will look it up. My sister has many fruit trees and a large organic vegetable garden to keep the family self sufficient as possible. Bees seem a logical addition to increase the pollination.


      • Exactly, you can harvest excess honey from a top bar hive but you can not extract that honey and reuse the comb as you can with a langstroth. I am a small scale beekeeper but I do sell honey so the langstroth is a better choice for me. I would like to try a top bar someday just for learning purposes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Aha! I’m beginning to understand why that method is called ‘natural’. It is easier on the bees. Perhaps a combination of the two would be best. I would want to share some of the bounty with friends – if not get some income for my trouble.


      • I’m not sure it is more natural. That’s one of the things we beekeepers argue about. Our bees normally live in trees and move up and down – not out and back. And they were re-use their honeycomb and not have to rebuild it like they will when you harvest from a top bar. For me, natural beekeeping (which I try to do) has more to do with how you manage the bees (use of chemicals etc ) more so than the box.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I see what you mean. I remember chemical use as being one of the factors in hive collapse and the scarcity of bees. Things like mono-culture and poor hive hygiene being other factors. What are your thoughts on this?


      • The media does hype the beepocalypse. However, bees die at a much greater rate than they did 20 years ago. In the early 80’s a beekeeper in my area might lose 1 hive out of 10 over the winter. Now it is not rare to lose 5. That’s a 50% loss. I think several issues are at fault. Chemicals (in the environment, some used by farmers, some by beekeepers); genetics (bee breeders struggling to make a profit by selecting bees that are sweet, prolific and productive but maybe not as hardy); pests and viruses (pest such as tracheal mites, varroa mites and now small hive beetles weaken bees and spread viruses) and yes. For the commercial beekeepers who support agriculture thru pollinations services those bees have an awful diet. Even in our local communities we all rush to kill the weeds. Those aren’t weed – their food sources.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I can see the points you make. I am heartened by the increased awareness among the general public now. Even in schools, the issue of reduced insect life – butterflies, moths and bees – is raised and children are challenged to find out why. We gardeners can help too by planting with bees in mind and not using chemicals.


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