Beekeeping without pain

“Do you still want that hive of stingless bees?”

Are there people out there who say no to the offer of a thousand tiny flying pets?  Perhaps there are, but I’m not one of them.

So when my marvellous friend Laura decided to divide her hive of native bees – Tetragonula carbonaria, the variety of Australia’s 11 species of stingless bees most commonly kept in backyards – I was certainly not going to look a gift bee in the mouth.  Even if I was able to inspect the teeny mouths of these diminutive 4mm long critters.

Laura was able to share the joy because about every 18 months a healthy hive of these highly social bees doubles in size and can be divided to create a new colony. There’s no worries about finding a queen for each of the two new hives.  European honey bee queens sting their rivals to death, but in a charmingly democratic process, the queen for the new colony of native stingless bees is selected by the workers from the emerging virgin queenlets hanging around waiting for their moment. This thought pleases me almost as much as the factoid acquired from my new bible, Tim Heard’s (2016) The Australian Native Bee Book, that bees are kind of like wasps that evolved to become vegetarians. My new pets are a vego workers’ collective.

Splitting hives is how Kuring-gai Council’s WildThings bee programme (that, via Laura’s benificence, has made us beekeepers) has distributed 900 hives around NSW.  And it’s how the number of meliponists – the appealingly pretentious name for keepers of stingless bees – tripled between 1998 and 2010.  Carbonaria are opportunistic snackers and seem to like it in the suburbs, with their mishmash of local and introduced flowering plants.

There are around 1600 types of native bee in Australia.  We’ve put up a lovely poster by Gina Cranson of some of the locals on our back door to try to improve our bee-spotting skills.  But of the highly social Australian stingless bees T.Carbonaria is the one that copes best with a temperate climate, with a range that extends from the Daintree to the NSW South Coast.

Here in Sydney it’s getting on the chilly side for them, so we won’t be able to harvest sugarbag from our hive.  Our bees will need the pots of honey they stash around the beautiful and distinctive spiral shaped brood comb, along with their surprisingly large reserve of pollen, to make it through the cooler months.  Stingless bees produce a lot less  than European bees anyway – a kilo or so a year, compared to up to up to 75 kilos – although sugarbag is apparently delicious.

We can’t steal sweet treats from them, but our tiny pets won’t be idle.  Native bees don’t seem to be vulnerable to varroa virus, the nasty bug threatening bee health the world over that may spread to Australia any day now.  So I can be sure that my mango, macadamia and avocado trees will have pollinators in the eventuality of a bee-pocolypse… assuming I don’t succeed in killing the trees (or the bees) first.  Happily, however, given my patchy track record as a farmer, our new friends will happily roam up to 500 metres away, well beyond our wonky fence line in search of tucker.

You don’t have to walk bees, desex them, groom them, clip their nails or pick up their poo (although in winter the “house bees” can’t be bothered carrying the dunny can too far from the nest, so if you choose to keep stingless bees on your verandah and you are the sort of person who is troubled by piles of barely visible dung you might need to invest in a nano pooper scooper).  But of course, despite that, I have managed to find something to worry about.

Stingless bees don’t like spells of frosty weather or very very hot days.  If it’s over 42 degrees inside the hive the whole damn lot of them can die.  So I was a bit antsy when Sydney had a couple of sizzlers in our first week as bee keepers.  The spot we’ve picked out for them is shaded by vines and protected from the afternoon sun, as well as catching the morning rays in winter time.  And our hive is wrapped in a polystyrene cover to insulate the colony against temperature extremes.  Once we’ve had them for a year or two we might take Laura’s approach: “tough love”.  But because we don’t really want to execute our bees (to be referred to collectively, the kids have decided, as Bob) before we even get to know them, this time we rigged up a bit of extra shelter and some evaporative airconditioning.

The only trouble with polystyrene is, as all chicken keepers know, it’s like crack to birds.  They don’t have too many taste buds and for some reason they can’t get enough of that squeaky mouth feel.  The gaggle of teenaged brush turkeys that loiter in our backyard hoping for leftovers from the chooks obviously decided that bees with a side-order of synthetic aromatic polymer would make a refreshing after-dinner snack.

Maybe I’ll come to regret the peace loving nature of the vegan commune in the backyard.

A dead-end trap crop

A “dead-end trap crop”: is it the germ of a new Dr Seuss tongue twister or a surplus insult from a John Cleese and Graham Chapman sketch?  Nope, it’s the my latest strategy for dealing with the beautiful but deeply irritating cabbage white butterfly.

I like to think of our choice of a garden on a steep, shady south west facing slope not so much a tragic error in garden planning but a deliberate strategy for replicating temperate conditions in a subtropical climate.  It wasn’t an inability to use a compass that led us here.  Absolutely not. Instead it was my cunning plan to produce home-grown raspberries.

This fantasy has been somewhat tempered by our brassica disappointments of recent years.

Radishes are considered to be idiot-proof and we’ve usually managed to get them to grow, if not to actually eat them.  I like the long-rooted daikons since there is a brief interregnum between germination and gnarly inedibility.  The daikon sits happily in the ground waiting for me to make sushi. If don’t get my act together in time, there’s always the lovely white flowers to look forward to.

This year’s bash at radishes hasn’t worked out quite so well, thanks to my innovative  (a.k.a. totally ineffective) strategy for keeping the chooks at bay – a mandala of brightly coloured children’s bicycle wheels.  Evidence, if you needed it, that (a) the Goddess doesn’t necessarily protect every vegetable sheltering in a life-enhancing spiral (b) chickens are definitely not supertasters.  In fact, apparently chickens only have about 300 taste buds, and they’re on the roof of their mouths, which may explain the chooks’ enthusiasm for eating polystyrene foam (“crack for chickens” as someone once put it on a backyard chicken forum).

I’m also a serial failure at growing brussel sprouts.  Perhaps they’re paying me back for all the bad-mouthing I gave them as a child.  I console myself with the thought that it’s a bit warm in Sydney for this member of the brassica family anyway. You need to start early – I’ve heard you need to have your seeds in by November if you want tidy looking mini-cabbages and not some kind of ad hoc freeform leafy thing.

I banged in some seedlings in autumn – I’m reserving judgement but at this stage I’m not optimistic.   The “bad hair day” of the plant pictured above may be a consequence of a close encounter with the repurposed wire drawer I was using to keep the bandicoots at bay.  Since the cure appears to be worse than the disease, and the bandicoot seems to share my childhood dislike of sprouts, I’m living on the edge and letting the brussels go commando. The wire drawer, along with a bisected fan-cover, is off to provide security and support to my newly planted swiss chard and salsify.  I’m hoping the look is more “frugal locavore’s organic garden” and less “disturbed hoarder’s junkyard” but I reckon it could go either way.

And now we turn to the Battle of the Bok Choi.

Over the years my passion for purple and anaemic lust for iron-rich veggies resulted in an epic struggle to produce a decent crop of my favourite asian green, Red Bok Choi.  Cabbage whites seem to share my enthusiasm.   Bok choi butterflies would seem a more apt (and alliterative) choice of name.

My first effort – a feeble attempt to conceal my pretties underneath the generous leaves of a (ultimately fruitless) zucchini –  underestimated the persistence and acute senses of your average crucifer-loving butterfly.  Interplanting with coriander was a break through.  In Sydney, you can harvest your coriander leaves for aroundabout ten minutes before your plant goes to seed.  Growing cilantro as a kitchen herb here is an essentially doomed enterprise.  That said, stinky old coriander leaves do seem to throw the insect pests right off their game.  There’s apparently a couple of genes that are implicated in some peoples’ deep distaste for cilantro – maybe that’s a part of the genome we share with bugs.

But this year’s lone self seeded bok choi is looking more perfect than last season’s coriander-defended efforts.  Is it the chilly weather? The location inside the repurposed chicken tractor/brush turkey and possum exclusion zone? or is it… (drumroll) the magic of the dead-end trap crop?

After my embittering exeriences with kale and marigolds, I’m a tiny bit skeptical about companion planting.  But given the cruel fate dished out to our broccoli by an evil alliance of brassica loving bugs and furry critters last year, I’d give anything a try to get a bit more broc to the table.

I’ve been growing land cress a while.  It was one of the few food crops I managed grow – in a polystyrene foam box parked by the outdoor dunny – in the concrete back court of my terrace house in the rainy British north-west, back in the day.  Here in Berowra, it flourished in a damp and shady patch next to the chook yard, giving us for two La Nina years an unending supply of the “house soup” – vicchysoise hotted up with landcress, jerusalem artichokes and zucchinis.  Flatulence-inducing but fabulous.  All in all, a great plant.

So when I heard that upland cress has the reputation as a Black Widow for a crucifer-loving insects I figured I’d give it another whirl.

Sacrificial or trap crops are tasty things used to distract bugs from your favoured plants.  Dead-end trap crops, on the other hand, lure insects away from the plants you want to protect and then kill them.  Land cress, it seems, contains the spicy-flavoured glucosinolates, prompting some moths to lay their eggs on its leaves where its caterpillars hatch, feast and die.  Gruesome but apparently effective.

The seeds I ordered from the ever-reliable Green Harvest were the familiar looking upland cress (Barbarea vernis).  Unfortunately, the variety of land cress (sometimes called winter cress or yellow rocket) that’s been been tested as a dead-end trap crop is  Barbarea vulgaris, a related, taller plant with similar yellow flowers but a less rounded leaf.

Barbarea vulgaris is resistant to another pestthe diamond back moth – which produces a smaller caterpillar that’s also a lover of brassicas (to identify whether you’ve got got a diamond-back larvae, give the grub a bit of a nudge – it will give a bit of a wiggle backwards.  But hopefully not leap up and punch you in the eye.)  It’s a bit less clear about whether winter cress is quite so deadly to cabbage whites.  And then there’s the vexed question of whether the landcress in my garden – barbarea vernis – does the same job.

But it’s all going swimmingly so far.  My land cress is unchewed, and my the kids have already turned their noses up at a couple of meals of home-grown broccoli.  I’m sure they’ll be pleased to find there’s loads more to come, not to mention heaping platefuls of mustard greens, land cress, kale and (with luck) brussel sprouts.

And so the time honoured tradition of intergenerational brassica torture continues…

Ecosystems of evil

Okay, I know there’s no such thing as evil ecosystems.  You create plenty, and things come.  Plenty of chicken food and regular eggs, you get nine teenaged brush turkeys, slouching around your backyard, eating anything that’s not nailed down.  Lots of grapes vines and your resident possums bite their way through the mesh exclusion bags and let in the fruit flies.  A yard littered with the sulphurous fermented droppings of a cocos palm (not to mention the ordure of those brush turkeys), you get loads and loads of flies.

I’ve had a red hot go at taking an aesthetic approach to the flies, with their sparkling metallic blue and golden armour and crazy eyes.  I’ve tried to think about them as simply part of the cycle of life, but I am starting to stare pointedly at my watch, waiting for the arrival of the cavalry, a wheeling flock of insectivorous SBBs (small brown birds) that will weave through the undergrowth and snatch the pests from the air without breaking formation.  I want one of those neat and tidy ecosystems, the ones where the annoying insects become a food source for endangered and good-looking avian visitors.

But no – desite my native shrubs and the absence of a horde of noisy miners, our place is rich in  bombastic generalists and SBBs are thin on the ground.  Your kookaburra – good for tidying up your left over sausages. Your cockies will make short work of the peach crop.  But both of them bloody useless at disposing of flies.  The garden skinks have been a disappointment as well.  Allegedly they are avid carnivores, and flies are a favourite treat, and we’ve got more Lampropholis guichenoti in the backyard than we have five cent pieces rattling around in the bottom of the washing machine.  But they, too, have failed to come to the party.  Once again, Gaia appears to be napping on the job.

While the Cocos palm absolutely and definitively a weed (I like the nuggets of invective in the Grow Me Instead Brochure – “a blot on the landscape” “can give the appearance of a garden planted with telegraph poles”) my hatred for this vermin-attracting plant was masked for a while by a sense of gratitude.  After all, it did save the house and possibly the family from being crushed under a giant gum tree.

I was at work one day when RB called.  “I don’t want to worry you but a tree’s just fallen on the house”.

The SES was summoned: a marvellous mob of guys and gals with chainsaws who belayed themselves to the wonky car port and swarmed over the roof of the house, making short if noisy work of the tree.  The big gum had lost its grip on the ground and fallen sideways towards our verandah.  Fortunately a forked branch wedged itself across the Queen palm, holding the eucalyptus suspended just a smidgen above the roof. The sum of the damage: one branch lightly brushed a gutter and gave it a bit of a bend.

So, thanks for that, Queen palm (and, needless to say, the SES. You are legends.).  We’re grateful for the structural integrity of our roofline.

But if you think it’s going to stop us chopping you down, you couldn’t be more wrong. The possums might view your fruit as ideal picnic food but you’re a hazard for the flying foxes.  It’s a worry when you rely for 30% of your diet on something that gives you acid reflux, damages your teeth, chokes you and leads you to stumble around on the garden being mauled by suburban dogs.  Even Maccas isn’t that bad.  That’s an evil ecosystem if ever there was one.

And that’s leaving aside the trip hazard for someone as poorly coordinated and lazy with the garden broom as I am.  So unless I hear about a recipe for cocos palm wine before I afford a tree surgeon, Cocos palm, you’re cactus!

Mystery minibeasts

Calling entymologists and taxonomists, amateur and professional.  Who can name these minibeasts?