Bee Gardens

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Dr Noraini Bahari

Dr Noraini Bahari is a member of MY Bee Savior. She was a landscape architect at USIM for six years and is currently a senior lecturer at UiTM, Perak.

Bees today

MY Bee Savior Association is an NGO that was established in 2015 to create public awareness of the importance of bee sustainability. It also aims to strengthen the efforts to increase bee populations and to empower corporate commercialisation in the field of bee keeping. Bees are highly important for crop pollination. These bees include Apis mellifera (western honey bee), native to Europe, and Apis cerana (eastern honey bees) which can be found in our country. They are highly managed in hives for crop pollination.

Populations of these agricultural pollinators are declining worldwide. This phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, occurs when the majority of worker bees disappear. It first came to the world’s attention with reports of western honey bees disappearance in North America in 2006.  But most beekeepers in European countries (especially in Northern Ireland) experienced a similar phenomenon in 1998, where there was a reported decline of 50% in bee population.

Now, this phenomenon has become global and affects some Asian and African countries as well. This shows the great need to protect, conserve and preserve our bee populations. We have to start worrying now before it is too late. 

The possible causes of Colony Collapse Disorder include climate change, non-native species presence, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Discontinuous supply of flora resources, disease and habitat fragmentation all play a role in the decline of bee populations.

Bees need us. How can we help them?

From the perspective of a landscape architect, one of the ways which can help restore bee populations and preserve their habitat is establishing bee gardens. Cities hold the key to saving bees because cities encompass urban green spaces (UGS), for example, green roofs, public gardens, community gardens, allotments, domestic gardens, etc. The ability of these places to support biodiversity has been recently acknowledged. There is now a call to effectively integrate these UGS in biodiversity planning and management to ensure their full inclusion in biodiversity conservation.

The urban garden is one of the UGS that we are concentrating on now. It is preferred by bees because of the wide range of fruits, vegetables, flowers that can be found in the garden. Many studies find that urban gardens often attract up to ten times more bees than the places we might consider bee havens such as nature reserves, parks, cemeteries and other public green spaces. This is because bees are unable to thrive when there are only trees or turves. Thus, we should try to plant a variety of flowering plants that are richer in pollen and nectar.

Bees provide flowers the vital service of pollination, help us to produce healthy crops and maintain thriving ecosystems, which in turn ensure our health. In simple words, bees are important for the overall health of the environment.

Urban bees

Here are some of the bees that can be found in our cities:

  • honey bees (lebah madu)
  • stingless bees (lebah kelulut)
  • solitary bees (lebah tunggal)
  • bumblebees (lebah dengung)

(among the four types of bee, the bumblebee is perhaps the most glamorous because of the movie Transformers)

Establishing bee gardens in the city

Bees are unique insects. They play a major role in plant pollination due to their absolute dependence on flowers as their source of food. Therefore, bees that live in the cities seek out green spaces like parks and gardens. These green spaces in urban areas provide a proper habitat to the bees, thus helping in the conservation of bees.

When designing a bee garden, the flowers have to be in large patches because these would allow bees to dine at one spot for a long period of time. Otherwise bees would expend too much energy flying from one location to another, leading to stress. In one spot, we ought to have more than two species of plants. Researchers suggest a minimum of ten species of plants to be planted in one spot.

When there is limited space, a vertical bee garden can be one solution. We can use walls or trellis as media to hang the plants. We can also make cool ponds for bees to take water, adding features like pebbles in the water so the bees have something to land on and do not drown.  

Typology of green spaces for bee gardens

There are many types of green spaces in the city. When considered collectively as wider infrastructure, they can create extensive and powerful recreational, cultural or community spaces and improve environmental quality as well as provide diverse and species-rich habitats.

Urban squares attract urbanites to get together and socialise, why not extend this function to let bees to have fun as well? By planting a variety of trees and plants in the planter boxes, and establishing green roofs at the gazebos, we can make urban squares key sites for conserving bee populations. 

Bioswale or rain garden can be turned into ‘Beeswale’ gardens. While managing the stormwater, we can also take care of urban bees.

Vertical walls have an amazing and dramatic appeal. These walls are popping up in major cities all over the world. A large vertical wall can be covered by hundreds of plant species which are good for bees.

Bee pop-up gardens can be established anywhere in the city, even at the roadside or in parks. They beautify the environment while providing foraging habitat for bees in the city. One of the pop-up gardens in Sweden comprises hexagonal structures which act as planting vessels that contain plants and water. These gardens can be incorporated into edible gardens as well.

Other places include rooftops, residential gardens and small individual gardens.

The landscape structure of bee gardens

To sum up, the basic elements for creating bee habitats are softscape, hardscape and water features.

Softscape refers to a composition of native plants with varieties of bee-preferred species. These plants should have flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar. It is good if the plants flower all year round. The plants also have to be intensely fragrant and have vivid colours. Some choices include Cosmos caudatus (ulam raja), Portulaca grandiflora, Angelonia spp, Antigonon leptopus (coral vine or air mata pengantin), Jasminum sambac (jasmine), Nelumbo nucifera (lotus).

Hardscapes or hard structures such as planter beds, boxes or vertical walls support the plants. These structures are useful when you have limited garden space. We can also construct bee houses or bee hotels for solitary bees to rest, lay eggs and raise their young. Although these bees do not produce honey, they are excellent pollinators.

Water features provide fresh water for the bees.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Biodiversity Gardening

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Tan Kai Ren

Tan Kai Ren was the project officer of the Rimba Project in University of Malaya where he conducted a series of urban biodiversity conservation and education programmes. He also organised the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge in 2019, a citizen science project that focused on collecting biodiversity data in the urban area. A former YSEALI Academic Fellow for Natural Resource Management and Environmental Issues, he is now an environmental officer at Club Med Cherating.

Kai Ren discusses how we benefit from biodiversity and how we can introduce elements that promote urban biodiversity.

Importance of biodiversity

Biodiversity provides us with oxygen and food, a fact that many of us seldom appreciate as we do not see the link between nature & human. It helps increase productivity as diverse soil microbes are involved in nutrient cycles where they break down organic matter underground and keep plants healthy.

Biodiversity also contributes to our health. Many pharmaceutical products are made with raw materials that come from many different plants in the forest. It contributes to our economy as well: places with high biodiversity become recreational destinations and attractions for tourism.

Biodiversity contributes to pest control too as it regulates the number of pests by natural processes through prey and predator interaction.

The keys to high biodiversity in your garden

High number of plant species results in high diversity of features and micro-climates that promote different kinds of wildlife. For example, companion plants grown alongside desired garden plants distract insect pests. This helps targeted plants grow more successfully.

Selecting local plant species for your garden attracts local animals as they seek their preferred food.

There is an easy way to look at how local wildlife can improve our life quality. The plants and animals such as the mammals, insects and birds in our garden interact among one another, forming food webs that regulate the population number of each species, including pests.

Many people think that more plants will attract more mosquitoes. In fact, once a whole ecosystem is established, there will be fishes eating the mosquito larvae and dragonflies eating the mosquitoes. As a result, less mosquitoes are found in the place.

The roles of a garden as a habitat

As urbanisation takes place, land that was covered almost entirely by natural forest habitats is replaced by high-rise buildings, roads and houses that lead to habitat fragmentation. Some animals find it difficult to survive in such conditions, especially those that need large spaces, e.g. elephants, tigers and other large mammals. Animal populations end up being threatened, some may become locally extinct, even the so-called common or urban species.

To re-introduce wildlife into our city, we can start growing fruit trees and wildflowers in our garden, as these plants attract butterflies and birds. We can view gardens as a shared space for ourselves and the wildlife. When we establish a balanced ecosystem in our garden, our garden serves as a place for animals to rest, nest and feed. Perhaps it is not for the relatively large animals, but the garden is still friendly to smaller and more mobile animals that contribute to the food chain.

We can view gardens as a shared space for ourselves and the wildlife.

We can try to make our gardens a bit wilder so as to attract wildlife such as the monitor lizard, bats and the Asian tree toad. Sometimes, when biodiversity comes to us, we push it away for reasons like guano from bats, for example. However, we can still try to find a solution to overcome these problems.

During the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge, over 2000 species of plants and animals were documented in Kuala Lumpur despite its urban setting. Urban gardens play a large role in supporting wildlife. Therefore, anyone can contribute to wildlife conservation, even in the city, by just growing a single plant in his or her garden.

Elements to encourage biodiversity

  1. Sunlight. The essential element that plants can’t live without but there should not be too much exposure.
  2. Shade. Shade is especially important for certain plants such as moss, ferns and orchids.
  3. Water. Both continuous supply and temporary puddles are important to wildlife. Water features will attract frogs that eat mosquitoes.
  4. Hideouts. The small lizards and frogs need these dark spaces, whether they are natural or artificial.
  5. Plants. Have more plants that attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies as well as birds. The selection of plants depends on our expectations and objectives. Arrange plants in multiple layers to create spaces for shade-loving species. It is important to know the growing requirements of the plants. Choose plants that flower and fruit all year round. These plants are best for wildlife.
  6. Decaying materials. Compost, logs, mulch that consists of dry leaves or wood chips increase biodiversity underground and keep plants healthy.
  7. Feeding station. Provide grains for birds.

Ideas for a wildlife garden

  1. Build an insect hotel by piling branches or rocks to create a moist and dark space for the insects.
  2. Mulch plants to attract beneficial insects and earthworms that help release nutrients back into the soil. This will also attract more birds e.g. the wild junglefowl.
  3. Create a small pond using plastic bottles or trays. Insert fish to inhibit breeding of mosquitoes. Small ponds help to increase biodiversity despite their size. It is also a good place for dragonflies to lay eggs.
  4. Start composting. We produce food waste every day. The fruit peels or roots of vegetables can be turned into compost that help gardens grow.
  5. Limit the use of insecticides as the toxins will cause long-lasting effects on non-target insects. Try alternative methods e.g. hand removal of the pest insects.
  6. Plant fruit trees as most of them are perennial. Besides, they bear edible fruits for humans and animals.

Knowing your limits

Knowing the right microclimate is especially important for plants such as orchids and leafy vegetables. Also, make sure there are enough spaces for the plants to grow. The intensity of sunlight is a decisive factor for plant growth. We also need to have the suitable soil type to produce healthy plants that support wildlife.

Most importantly, make sure you have enough time to manage your own garden. More is not always better as nature can be messy sometimes. It is always about balance. Avoid dominance in terms of plants as well as animals. 


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Oikos: An introduction to ecology

Sometime in the 19th century, Ernest Haeckel, a naturalist, came up with the word ‘ecology’ to draw attention to something that he thought was important: the ‘entire relations’ of an organism. By this, he meant that it was not enough to study one plant or animal species at a time. He believed it was important to study not only the organism but also its relationships with other living organisms and how it interacts with non-living things like climate, water, soil and light.

This came from the idea that an organism’s home (habitat or surroundings) has a great influence on its form (what a plant or animal looks like) and its behaviour (how it grows, moves, communicates and so on).

Tropical rainforest trees have shallow roots access nutrients found closer to the surface, unlike temperate trees that have deeps roots for nutrients found deeper in the soil.

Ecology is derived from the Greek ‘oikos’ which means home or household. It is the study of the relationships that exist among living things and between living things and their environment. This includes both non-living things like water, soil, climate and minerals, and other organisms that are of the same or different species.

All plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms form a complex web of relationships—an ecosystem—that supports their survival. Interactions occur at many levels and there are different types of relationships.

A group of the same species living in an area make up a population. Think, for example, of the myna birds you see anywhere near your home: together they make up your neigbourhood’s myna population.

Photo by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay

Ecologists can study populations of organisms, examining their behaviours, their adaptations to their habitats, and how their numbers change over time and geographic regions. Some ecologists will spend years studying individuals in a population. They will record their births and deaths, diets, movements, and the impact they have on their surroundings.

Plants or animals also interact with other species in their habitats. A community is a set of several, different species that occupy a given area.

Take a simple house garden. Its trees, flowering shrubs, grass, worms, birds, bees, butterflies, snails, moss and mushrooms form a small community. As a community, they interact with each directly (bees feeding on flower nectar) and indirectly (worms dig through soil and this makes it better for plants to grow later).

Communities can be as small as that of a thinly-populated backyard garden or be found within huge national forests.

Interactions within communities involve processes like pollination, decomposition, and feeding. These benefit the organisms and also provide many services for us. Ecosystem services include:

  • food and fuel provision
  • fresh water supply
  • pest and pathogen control
  • soil improvement
  • climate regulation

Ecologists study such relationships and their outcomes, exploring how ecosystems are formed and how they are sustained. Thus, ecology studies contribute to a wide range of fields and practices including agriculture, conservation, natural resource management and sustainable development.

Here are some of the questions that ecologists try to answer:

  • How do behaviour and physiology change in response to the physical environment?
  • How do organisms use the resources in their habitats?
  • How will ecosystems respond to human activities?
  • How can we restore degraded ecosystems?

As the world deals with changing environmental conditions, pollution, food security and species loss, ecology helps us understand ecosystems and how to protect them—for our own well-being and that of the planet.


References

Egerton, F.N. (2013), History of Ecological Sciences, Part 47: Ernst Haeckel’s Ecology. The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, 94: 222-244. doi:10.1890/0012-9623-94.3.222

https://www.britannica.com/science/ecology


You can learn more about ecology and ecosystems closer to home here:

What is rewilding?

damselfly

The term rewilding has been thrown about a lot quite recently but in many cases, the term has been misused to just be about planting trees. Here I explain how ecologists view rewilding, as well as important concepts required to understand rewilding. This is somewhat a summary of a review paper by Perino et al. (2019). If you want to read something more technical you can find the details of that paper in the references below.

Rewilding is not only about introducing wild things to where they can’t be found anymore. To quote Dave Foreman:

“I meant rewilding to instead be about wilderness restoration – restoring wildness with native species and processes. So, let us all remember that rewilding comes from wilderness recovery (or restoration).”

In other words, the goal of rewilding is to restore functions to ecosystems through the reintroduction of native species. This is the main difference between rewilding and ecological restoration, which focuses on the restoration of ecosystem functions without the emphasis on reintroducing native species. This does not mean that ecological restoration is worse; in locations where invasive species are impossible to eliminate or native species cannot be reintroduced, ecological restoration is a more viable option.

What is an ecological function? An example would be a butterfly, which as an adult serves as a pollinator for flowering plants, while, as a caterpillar, it functions as prey for insect-eating birds and a host for parasitoid wasps.

Restoring ecological functions drives 3 processes (simple terms are in bold, scientific terms are in brackets):

  • Food chains (Trophic complexity)
  • Disturbance (Stochastic disturbance)
  • Movement (Dispersal)

Plants, fungi and animals with a lot of ecological functions create a complex web of interactions. Among these interactions are food chains. This is the process in which energy is stored and moved throughout the ecosystem. The more complex the food chains or food webs, the more stable and resilient the ecosystem will be. This is why rewilding efforts can start with first reintroducing predators back into ecosystems. For example, in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, wolves were reintroduced back into the park first, to regain ecosystem balance.  By doing so, you add another level to the food chain and the lower levels of the food chain are regulated by the predators on the upper levels.

We tend to think of disturbance as a bad thing, but that is not always the case in a dynamic system. Random disturbance events help to make ecosystems more diverse and stable by ensuring that no one organism can dominate. For example, in rainforests, large trees will grow and block sunlight from reaching the understory. If the large trees do not die – through falling over, disease, lightning strikes or fire – then there will not be any new space for younger trees to grow. So a forest is not a permanent collection of trees, but it is in a constant state of change in which large trees fall and new trees fill the gaps. This prevents a single tree species from taking over in a rainforest, as many different species fill the niches that become available after a tree fall.

Random disturbance events help to make ecosystems more diverse and stable by ensuring that no one organism can dominate.

Movement is crucial for maintaining the food chains when disturbance happens. Ecosystems are often patches of resources that animals, fungi and plants can use. Usually, this results in patches with different compositions of species. For example, if there are many species in a single large patch, it can help to rescue populations in other smaller patches through the movement of organisms between patches.

This is why creating networks of patches that enable movement between patches is important. It helps to maintain the food chains in all the connected patches by buffering the random disturbance.

On a large scale, preserving ecological functions pays humans back in the form of ecological services. The previous example of a butterfly supplies the supporting service of pollination. This is necessary for the provisioning services which create food and raw materials for people.

Overall ecological services can be categorised into 3 benefits:

  1. Non-material
  2. Material
  3. Regulating

Non-material benefits are things like improvements to human health and wellbeing that can be gained through interactions with nature. Non-material benefits also extend to profits from services such as tourism.

Material benefits are things that you can harvest from nature, such as wood or food. Malaysians have a very close relationship with many species of plants that are used in our culture and cuisine.

Regulating benefits are things that are controlled by having nature around. These include natural disasters like floods and landslides, regulation of heat and climate, and reduction of dust and pollution.

When you have many ecological functions, all these interactions create an ecosystem. Ecosystems, by definition, are living and non-living components interacting in a shared space. The goal of rewilding should always be to restore ecosystems, and that is why we have to be careful about how we use this term and not use it as a buzzword that means only planting trees.

In the next article, I give an example of a successful case of urban rewilding in relation to food chains and interactions, and the lessons we can learn from it, especially from a functional ecology perspective.

References:

  1. https://rewilding.org/what-is-rewilding/
  2. Perino, A., Pereira, H. M., Navarro, L. M., Fernández, N., Bullock, J. M., Ceaușu, S., … & Pe’er, G. (2019). Rewilding complex ecosystems. Science, 364(6438), eaav5570.

This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

See also

Rewilding, the case of urban Birdwing butterflies

Here I explain how you can think about ecosystems and how to restore them. The case study of the Golden Birdwing Butterfly, which can be found in the urban forest patch that is Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden located inside the University of Malaya.

Merely reintroducing a species does not produce long lasting results. Butterfly farms all over the country constantly have to restock wild caught butterflies due to captive butterflies dying and not reproducing. When an animal is placed in a system that does not meet its needs, there’s nothing much that it can do except go extinct.

The secret to the birdwings survival is the fact that it has a functioning ecosystem that produces resources can satisfy its ecological requirements.

In a butterfly farm, the basic requirements for survival are met; the temperatures are suitable and there is enough food supplied through cut flowers and fruit. The ecosystem in a butterfly farm looks like this:

To be more sustainable and reduce the cost of having to feed the birdwings, you could plant food plants for the birdwings, so they can feed on the nectar. Birdwings prefer flowers that grow on in large clusters like Saraca, Ixora and Bauhinia kockiana so they can walk along and feed. The ecosystem would look this this:

As mentioned before, once the end of the lifespan of the butterfly is reached the ecosystem collapses. This is because all butterflies require a host to develop on as a caterpillar, in this case the Birdwings are breeding on a climbing plant known as Pipevine (Aristolochia tagala). If supplied with a host plant, the butterflies can lay their eggs and reproduce and create a new generation. This ecosystem would look like this:

However, Birdwing caterpillars damage the stem once they are about to pupate into a butterfly. This behaviour is believed to increase the nutrient density of the leaves while reducing the water content. Because of that, the above ecosystem will also eventually collapse after enough caterpillars damage and kill off all their hosts.

The special thing about the Rimba Ilmu ecosystem is that it has pollinators for the Pipevine, so the Pipevine can reproduce and replace the population that is lost to caterpillars. What is the pollinator of the pipevine? Tiny flies (Drosophilla spp., Megaselia spp.), which get caught in trap chambers in the flower of the Pipevine and forced to become pollinators without any reward. So a more viable ecosystem looks like this:

Of course since the Pipevine doesn’t feed them for the service of pollination, the fruit flies require their own food source, which is often rotten fruit, decomposing materials or fungus. These decomposition systems happen when there is enough fallen fruit, mulch and rotting logs in the overall ecosystem. This is supplied by leaves, fruit and branches falling off the plants in the system (which is an important reason to always leave some decomposition around). This results in this ecosystem:

The example above is a functioning, self sustaining ecosystem. As long as it gets enough sun it can keep going without any human interference. But the most interesting thing about this ecosystem is the fact that it assembled itself. While this “let nature find a way” approach is possible, we can help it along by being aware of the different parts and the needs of each part of the system. If you want butterflies in your garden, you need to think about more than butterflies.

References:

http://rainforest-australia.com/birdwing.html


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant