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The birds and the bees

A growing number of clients are asking landscape professionals to assist them in attracting birds and insects (mainly bees) to their gardens through their choice of plants. Landscape designer and Unitec academic, Penny Cliffin, provides advice on which plants keep the birds and bees happy

Clients’ desire to support bees and insects in their gardens vary – some may want to ensure their fruit and veges are pollinated, while others may be concerned about the decline in bee populations around the world due to pesticides, disease and loss of habitat.

No matter the reason, I suggest considering all garden plant types, starting with the structural framework of trees, then shrubs, climbers, perennials and herbs.

Beckoning birdsong

All large trees in the garden provide roosting and nesting opportunities for birds. Tūīs love to perch on the highest tips of trees to sing their lovesongs, while tall hedges also provide shelter and nesting opportunities.

Bird and bee buffet

After these accomodation needs are met, the next requirements are food and drink! A range of trees, shrubs, climbers and more can provide a suitable bird and bee buffet. Below are some of my favourites.


If there is room for large flowering natives such as pōhutukawa and pūriri, wonderful, but most suburban properties are better served by smaller species such as:

  • Kōwhai (Sophora tetraptera or Sophora microphylla).

  • Lacebark (Hoheria populnea).

  • Tītoki (Alectryon excelsus).

  • Cabbage trees (Cordyline australis).

Small/medium deciduous flowering exotic trees such as silk floss tree (Albizia julibrissin), redbud or Judas tree (Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’) and Indian bead tree (Melia azedarach) produce nectar and can be very useful in that they give summer shade but allow warming sun into the garden and house during the winter months.

Tūīs love the bright pink Taiwan cherry blossom in early spring, and can be seen in large groups chattering and chasing each other to get their fill. However, only the sterile cultivars of the Taiwan cherry, such as Prunus

campanulata 'Pink Cloud’, should be planted due to the weedy spread of the ordinary species by birds. Fruit tree blossom and fruit, such as apples, pears, figs, grapes and persimmons, will provide food for birds and insects, if you are willing to share!


Native shrubs such as korokia (Corokia beddleoides), karamū (Coprosma robusta), pōhuehue (Muehlenbeckia astonii) all have flowers and berries to feed birds and insects alike. Australian Grevillea and Banksia species produce lots of nectar, as does Lion’s Tail (Leonotis leonurus). Calliandra (Calliandra haematocephylla ‘Alba’) is very attractive to butterflies and has the added appeal of fragrance in the evening. Buddleia is a wonderful exotic shrub/small tree for butterflies, but it has weedy potential so is best pruned hard after flowering, to remove seeding potential and keep the plant small enough to manage easily.


Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) and clematis (Clematis paniculata and others) produce lots of nectar for birds and insects. Mature ivy (Hedera helix and H. canariensis) has flowers and berries that are very attractive to bees, but be careful where you plant it or it can become invasive.


Herbaceous perennials are non-woody plants, which often die back over winter (but not always).

Examples of perennials that add to a menu to support birds include native perennials such as:

  • Shore spuge/waiūatua (Euphorbia glauca).

  • Shore astelia (Astelia banksii).

  • Flaxes/harekeke such as the smaller mountain flax varieties like Phormium cookianum ‘Green Dwarf’ provide nectar.

Native grasses provide seed heads for finches and waxeyes – for example, the miniature toetoe (Chionochloa flavicans) and blue festuca (Festuca glauca).

Exotic perennial options include dahlias, echinacea, salvia, geraniums, aquilegia, cerinthe, daisies, beebalms, helianthus and gladioli all provide food for insects. Sedums are very attractive to butterflies and will provide nectar in autumn when earlier flowering species have died back. Pink is the most common sedum flower colour but the white variety Hylotelephium spectabile ‘Stardust’ is particularly attractive.

Sedums are very attractive to butterflies and will provide nectar in autumn when earlier flowering species have died back. Pink is the most common sedum flower colour but the white variety Hylotelephium spectabile ‘Stardust’ is particularly attractive.


Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), lavender (Lavandula sp.), thyme, oregano and sage are all herbs with nectar rich flowers, feeding bees and butterflies. Bees also love parsely, alliums and chive flowers.

Specialist plants

Bees are particularly attracted to the colour blue, so blue flowering Geranium ibericum is a favourite, as are catmint and teucrium.

Native and exotic nettles feed the native red and yellow admiral caterpillars, which are becoming rare due to insecticides/herbicides and lack of habitat.

Water feature

In the hot summer months, birds can struggle to find water. A bird bath, bowl, trough or water feature can be just the ticket to provide water for birds to drink and to wash in, while giving your clients enjoyment watching them.

A diet for birds

Pīwakawaka (fantail) and tauhou (silver eyes) have low carb, high fat diets (the original Atkins dieters). They will eat pest insects in the garden, and you should advise your clients to provide a source of fat such as coconut or lard. Blackbirds eat olives and sunflowers seeds.

Value Add

So, armed with this knowledge, you can now help to add an abundance of life, sound and colour to your clients’ garden beyond the plants you install.

Note: It is better to delay cutting back perennials and shrubs in the autumn in order not to remove food sources before necessary.


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