How do I attract more birds and bees to my garden?

Borage flower (Borago officinalis)
Borage Flower (Borago officinalis)

Birds and bees are wonderful assets to your garden. Not only are they a joy to look at and listen to, they are also beneficial because they are pollinators. As birds, bees and other insects look for pollen and nectar for food, pollen is caught on their bodies and spread from flower to flower. Such creatures are collectively referred to as ‘pollinators’. Pollinators are beneficial to the garden because the aid the reproduction of plants. So pollination is a side effect of a pollinator collecting food. Some pollinators are more effective than others. The most well known pollinator is the bee as you know. Other pollinators include butterflies, hoverflies and moths.

Across the world birds also play an important part in pollination. In the USA hummingbirds (Trochilidae) pollinate wild flowers. Tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), korimako/bellbird (Anthornis melanura) and tauhou/silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) are attracted to nectar in native flowers in New Zealand, pollinating as they go from flower to flower. Honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) and lorikeets (Loriinae) are flowerfeeders in Australia and some species depend almost entirely on nectar as a source of energy.

Why do birds and bees visit some flowers and not others?

Not all flowers are created equal. Some flowers naturally have more pollen than others. Flowers are different shapes and appeal to different creatures. Some flowers attract more bees because of their colour. However, if you provide the right habitat, birds and bees will visit your flowers and your garden more often.

More than one kind of bee

Bee on an oregano flower (Origanum vulgare)
Bee on oregano flower (Origanum vulgare)

There is more than one kind of bee of course. There’s the honey bee, the bumble bee and around the world there are thousands of different kinds of bees. New Zealand has 28 species of native bee. North America has around 4000 species of native bee. England has more than 250 species of bees, including 24 species of bumble bee! Even Iceland has bumble bees.

Bees feed on and require both nectar and pollen. The nectar is for energy and the pollen provides protein and other nutrients. Most pollen is used by bees as larvae food, but bees also transfer it from plant-to-plant, providing the pollination services needed by plants and nature as a whole.


Six ways to attract more birds and bees to your garden

1. Choose plants with pollen and nectar

Next time you purchase plants, consider their nectar and pollen capacities, alongside attractive they will look in the garden. Here are some plants known for their pollen and nectar appeal to bees, birds and other insects;

  • Shrubs – Escallonia, Euphorbia, Hebes, Leptospermum
  • Annuals – Zinna, Salvia, Cosmos
  • Perennials – Bog Sage (Salvia Uliginosa), Southern Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro), Eryngium, Gaura
  • Herbs – Bee Balm (Monada didyma), Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)
  • Native plants of your region

2. Plant en masse – big groups of the same flower

It’s not uncommon for bees to work in one spot for at least 10 hours and they like to collect from the same type of flower. Flowers are easier for bees and other pollinators to locate if planted in large groups. Energy is also conserved by pollinators when they can stay in one location. Mass plantings look sensational too!

3. Include wildflowers

Wildflowers are a major food source for bees. Maybe you can plant a whole wildflower garden?! Other advantages to growing wildflowers are that they are hardy and require little care, and are usually more pest resistant. They are likely to self seed in future seasons too.

Several studies suggest that wild bees prefer to forage—but not necessarily exclusively—on the nectar and pollen from native plants. Native plants are also typically well-adapted to local soil, climate, and other environmental conditions, making them more durable in the landscape. For these reasons, native plants are frequently recommended for pollinator habitat restoration and pollinator garden projects.

4. Have a variety of flowers

Different bees and birds have different sized and shaped tongues so a planting range of flowers in your garden will help attract a variety of different species.

…differences in foraging energy efficiency explained almost fully why bumble bees predominated on some flower species and honey bees on others.

Another consideration is that experts generally agree that bees can’t see red so easily. Bees see mainly along the blue green colour spectrum – they love blue flowers; Rosemary (alvia rosmarinus), Echium blue bedder (Echium plantagineum), Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro), Lupin (Lupinus angustifolius) etc

Having flowers all year around will keep birds, bees and butterflies in your garden. Consider what flowers in each season and plant to provide flowers in winter when there is less food available for birds and insects.

water source for garden pollinators
Water dish for garden pollinators

5. Provide water for birds, bees and other pollinators

Everything that lives in your garden needs water. If you don’t provide it they will look for water elsewhere. Bees drink water but also use it year round for other purposes.

In winter especially, honey bees use water to dissolve crystallized honey and to thin honey that has become too thick and viscous. In summer, they spread droplets of water along the edges of the brood comb, and then fan the comb with their wings. The rapid fanning sets up air currents that evaporate the water and cools the nest to the right temperature for raising baby bees.

Most birds need water every day for drinking and cleaning.

Different water depths provide access for different creatures. Having a saucer, old lid or proper bird bath with a couple of centimetres or inches of water and a big rock sticking out will provide water for the bathers and swimmers as well as insects that can perch on a rock and drink.

Keep it clean by daily refilling. A side benefit may be less birds pecking at your tomatoes and fruit as they look for a drink.

6. Create a habitat or home for bees and birds

tomato and flowers
Tomatoes and companion flowers

Keep bees and birds in your garden not just with food but with shelter too. Some bees nest in the ground. Some nest in twigs and wood. Choose places to keep the ground undisturbed and leave some branches and twigs undisturbed to rot.

Add bird feeders and bird boxes. And perches like stakes.

Encouraging a wide range of insects to your garden will attract more birds. Insects love leaf litter, so leave the leaves.

Put out sugar water for birds, especially in winter when other food sources are low. Mix 1/2 cup sugar with 4 cups of water. Anything sweeter may attract wasps or start to ferment too quickly. Place it in a shallow dish somewhere safe where cats can’t reach it. You could even make a sugar water feeder.

Making your own sugar feeder for birds and insects

Take a one-litre milk bottle and attach the lid to a shallow dish or jar lid. Fill the milk bottle with sugar water and make a few small holes about half a centimetre from the bottom of the bottle. Screw it into the lid and turn the dish upside down. Sugar solution will come out of the bottle and fill the dish to the height of the holes.

What I’ve learnt about birds, bees and flowers

I’ve learnt that I want to plant much larger swathes of the same flowering plants. I’ve learnt to plan my plants to flower across all the seasons. I’m going to start putting out sugared water for my birds and insects. I learnt to look at flowers with new eyes; whether they will provide a food source for my local fauna.

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