Plant a Bee Carpet
By Anno Torr
Carpet: a floor covering made from thick woven fabric.
Imagine a floral carpet fragrant with the scent of citrus, mint, and jasmine rather than of wet dog and smelly feet! Heaven – and just the scents to excite our struggling bees too as flower fragrance and colour are two important signals evolved by plants to attract pollinators. So, let’s take this carpet out into the garden where we’ll focus on a mix of low-growing nectar- and pollen-rich groundcovers. But, first, to unpack a few interesting facts about bees and their needs:
Most bees are generalists, visiting a wide variety of plants through the year.
Nectar is a bee’s main source of energy as it is high in sugar, while pollen provides proteins and fats that balance the diet.
Gathering pollen to take back to the hives is labour intensive, so bees are on the look-out for suitable flowers as close to home as possible. And, if there is a spread of flowers rather than the odd few dotted around, so much the better, for they can collect their fill while saving flying time and energy searching out others. For the gardener though, it is often difficult to know where the bees are nesting, so the best option is to spread your flower displays around the garden.
How bees choose flowers:
Flowers have evolved fragrance, bright colours, nectar, and pollen signals to lure in the pollinators. Most importantly, flower attractions need to excite bees enough to ensure repeat visits.
Pollen: Specialists are still unsure which properties of pollen the bees respond to. What is known is that these insects evaluate both sugar content and flow rate of nectar as they collect it. But, as the bees only taste the pollen once they’ve carried it back to the hive to feed the entire colony, how they assess the nutritional content (protein content) is unclear.
Taste and Smell: Certain taste receptors can detect the sugar content, but they respond to fragrance as well, and the smell of pollen differs from that of the flower as a whole. From a plant’s perspective, manufacturing pollen is energy intensive, and research suggests that plants control the amount of pollen taken by bees through taste.
Visual cues are numerous: bees de-code signals that indicate how much pollen is being released by the flower, they assess the size of pollen grains, and, new research shows, even detect electric fields around flowers. Response to colour is well-documented, with the blue, purple, violet, white and yellow spectrum being the most popular.
Experience or learning: studies suggest that foraging habits of social bees are influenced by feedback from members of the colony, plus, just how well stocked is the larder!
What hinders a bee’s search for sufficient quality and quantity of food?
Hybrid species often contain reduced volumes and quality of pollen and nectar.
Hybrids with double-blooms commonly offer less food, make it difficult for the insects to reach the inner flower, and the extra set of petals commonly replaced the pollen-laden anthers. So, rather stick with original species.
Don’t use pesticides. Most pesticides are not selective.
Where to place your flower carpet:
Sunny spots are best as most plants flower more prolifically in sunlight. Flower and leaf fragrance is often stronger in the heat of the day, especially those whose leaves are high in aromatic oils, like the Salvia/ mint family. Tuck these carpets out of the path of strong winds that rob them of the energy they need to feed, collect and fly back home with full pollen pouches. Have we mentioned this is not a foot-friendly carpet? Place it off the pathway, and anywhere little feet might wander; add it as an edging to an existing flower bed where bee-friendly perennials will increase diversity and choice. In fact, when encircled or at least backed by taller species can offer the bees a wind-free feeding zone.
A carpet made up of a single species or an intermingling design with two or more, the choice is yours. The latter though requires some thought and knowledge of plants competitiveness; don’t combine slow-growing groundcovers with more vigorous species that might smother them. Match water needs: look at rainfall season and volumes required – low, moderate, high. Use groundcovers that spread quickly and are known to cover vast areas, like Carpobrotus, as single species carpets where they can spread around and beneath taller perennials, subshrubs, and succulents.
The idea is to keep plants flowering so deadhead groundcovers continually through the season, and keep them in the peak of health with handfuls of compost mulch.
Click on the images below to open up a slideshow with specific plant information.