A Tranquil Hum: The Edible Honeybee Garden

The Tropical Garden, Fall 2015

By Richard Campbell, Ph.D.

A natural fit for South Florida, the honeybee garden can fill an urgent need, and attain a level of productivity far superior to edible gardening alone. But this complex garden will take commitment and learning.

Unless you have spent the last 20 years or so on the North Pole or under a rock somewhere, you have probably heard about butterflies and edible gardening in the home landscape. Both of these activities are noble, indeed, and can add considerable quality of life. Yet, there is more that can be done in the home landscape, the empty lot, the city park or wherever there is room to plant. I am addressing, of course, the honeybee garden, a natural fit for South Florida and one that fills an urgent need for our planet. 

The honeybee garden is a hybrid that incorporates many elements of the butterfly garden and edible garden. It requires nectar, pollen and diversity spread over the year. It supports trees, shrubs and groundcovers. And it can be wonderfully edible. In fact, due to its complexity, the honeybee garden can attain a level of productivity far superior to the edible garden alone. Creating one, though, will take a commitment to learning, a change of view and possibly an addressing of unfounded fears.

The first task in the honeybee garden is to identify which food sources the honeybees want. Honey Bees are quite sophisticated in their preferences, and these preferences change throughout the season. Honeybees will feed on almost any flowering plant that produces nectar or pollen, but they move to plants of preference. For instance, the honeybee will feed on the mango in your garden until your neighbor’s lychee comes into bloom. Then, like magic, the mango will be ignored— shunned so completely that production may suffer or even be nonexistent.

A honeybee garden should combine native and exotic plants attractive to the honeybee and to the gardener as well. There is a wide palate to choose from. Plant for aesthetics, tastes and even architecture. Be careful to choose as well for the entire year. Native trees like wild  tamarind and gumbo limbo tend to bloom over a long season and often have multiple blooms. Fruit trees typically have a short and intense blooming season and weedy shrubs and trees may bloom throughout the year. The successful honeybee gardener has to fit these pieces together. But, fret not over this most difficult of tasks, for the honeybee will forage in a two-mile radius of its hive; so even if you do not have a particular tree or time of the year covered, the honeybee can fly afar and achieve its needs.

A vegetable garden can fit into this picture. Heirloom cultivars and old standards have great honeybee status. Honeybees will perish if you use agri-chemicals in the garden. The honeybee is an effective and humbling bellwether for the home gardener. Follow its lead and you can reap the harvest of the edible garden.

The home gardener must also address the fear of bees. Honeybees do not “attack” while foraging for food. In fact, they do not attack at all; they defend their home or sting when being killed. Life with a honeybee garden is not to be feared—it is to be admired and celebrated. The gentle, soothing hum of the honeybee garden is the best therapist one can find. It takes away stress and heals the gardener. Then, the gardener has the opportunity to harvest the bounty and revel in the simplicity that is South Florida.