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.

Gymnastic bees, virgin fruit and the birds that ate spring

It’s the vernal equinox and out in the garden, the spring flowers are blooming.

It pleases me no end me to think that these little figlets are made up of hundreds of the most secretive of flowers, snuggled inside a hollow-ended stem.

As you can imagine, pollinating figs is an extreme sport.  It’s undertaken by the fig-wasp, which spends much of its 48 hours of life on a suicide mission for fig fertility.  The male wasps hatch, blind and wingless, gnaw their way to one of the as-yet-unborn females, mate with them (eww), chew them an escape tunnel (still not redeeming yourselves, guys) and then die without ever having experienced life outside their flowery prison.  The females emerge and flee, spreading pollen as they go, only to find and squeeze into a second syncope (the fig “fruit” to you and me) through a hole so tiny she rips her wings off in the process.  If she’s lucky she gets to lay her fertilised eggs amongst the miniscule flowers inside and promptly, you guessed it, dies.

It’s really quite a disturbing life-cycle.  It’s with some relief that I can say that my three fig trees – a White Adriatic, a White Genoa and a Brown Turkey – are, like most cultivated figs, sterile mutants.  That sounds bad, but it’s a walk in the park compared to the Gothic splatterfest of the caprifig’s lifecycle.

Figs are one of the very first plants to be cultivated by humans: they have been propagated by us since the Neolithic era, over eleven thousand years ago.  And the outcome of our long association with ficus carica is virgin birth.  Yep, that’s the meaning of parthenocarpy – the way that common cultivated figs produce fruit from female flowers unsullied by any male influence. Since their fruits are sterile, they rely on us to do the hard work of allowing them to reproduce. Bloody skivers.

Actually, humans are quite fond of producing such feckless fruits.  Bananas are a good example.  They’re sterile, thanks to their three sets of chromosones – just like those fast growing “triploid” Pacific Oysters I wrote about in my last post, reproducing thanks to genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters” that spring from the plant’s base.  Fig wasps and caprifigs have co-evolved – maybe in some weird cultural way, modern humans with their taste for large, fast growing and seedless fruit and our virgin orchards have done the same.

One way or another, people, myself included, seem to get a perverse kind of pleasure in frustrating plants’ attempts to have babies.

My broccoli, encircled by landcress that deals death to invading insects and safe inside the kids’ superannuated, net-enshrouded trampoline frame – has done really well this year.  Now the weather is warming up, however, it’s taking a real effort to thwart the reproductive desires of my brassicas.  Those tasty flower buds really really want to go the full distance and burst into bloom and it’s taking a serious commitment to broccoli-eating to cut them off at the pass.

I tried, but it’s too late for that for the rocket, the mizuna and the tatsoi – these spring flowers are in bloom, like it or not.

I’m happier about these vernal blooms: magnificently monochrome broad beans in all their line-print glory.

I was a bit worried about my broadies this year, incarcerated as they are beneath the chook dome, my first line of defence against the brush turkeys.  Would the pollinators be able to make it through the 1 cm square lattice of the dome’s aviary wire?  As I noodled around in the garden the other day I had my answer. A European bee hovered indecisively, making careful mental calculations or perhaps looking for a door handle.  Eventually, it seem to sigh and alighted briefly on a wire, adopting what can only be described as a pike position and plunging through for a perfect 10 entry.

It’s a bit early to say, but I think I can see a few tiny bean pods forming so I’m hoping that while I’ve been otherwise occupied we’ve been visited by other elite insect athletes up for the gymnastic challenge.

The local birds seem to be almost as ambivalent about the signs of spring as I am about my brassicas going to seed. The bowerbirds are doing their valiant best to rip all the buds off the liquidambar and the little wattlebirds have been paying excessive attention to the flowers on the chinese lantern.  They’re either defending them from insect attack or eating them – I’m not quite sure which.

I don’t think these red wattlebirds would be capable of doing any damage to the heavy duty flower of a gymea lily, even mob handed.  These monster blossoms are bird pollinated – the red colour scheme is a dead giveaway apparently.  I guess this is the honey eater equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Since you can roast and eat the roots and the young flower spikes it could even be supersized bush tucker for us humans too.

Enjoy the equinox: may all your spring flowers be excellent eating!

Sweets from my Sweetie

Big news from the solar pergola: Sweetie-boy, our blokey kiwifruit, is in bloom.  Still nada from the Hayward pair and Mt Tomah kiwiberry down at the bottom of the garden, but there are buds all over the low-chill Sweetie vines, lad and lass, after only two years in the ground.  Well done, boyo!

I’m really really really hoping we get fruit, but I’m not wildly optimistic, given how tricksy pollination can be for kiwis. According to the ever-authoritative North West Berry and Grape Information Network “kiwifruit flowers do not produce nectar and are relatively unattractive to bees”.  Potential pollinators won’t look twice at your unappealing chinese gooseberry flower if there’s anything else going.  I’m mystified – they look lovely to me.  But I’m starting to regret that lavender hedge.

New Zealand’s boffins are developing a RoboBee to help solve this problem (seriously!).  In the meantime, if your fella really isn’t up to the job, there’s always PollenPlus (TM), “from the world’s largest male kiwifruit pollen producer and supplier”.  Surely that’s a niche market.  And to get your big jar of pollen where it needs to go, why not purchase a PollenPlus motorised air blower with an electronic pollen dispenser?  Live the life of a giant mechanical insect!  You know, I really fancy that, though I think a bee costume would be mandatory to get the full effect.

Let’s be sensible.  Robotic pollinators are a bit rich for our blood.  I reckon I can stretch to assisting with a bit of  flower-on-flower frottage, though.  So come on, Sweetie-pie, show us those girlish blossoms and let’s get twirling!

Borage: a salad climax community

Once upon a time, in an autumn long long ago, the soggy spot between the chook yard and the custard apple tree looked like this: a jumble of useful greens – mizuna, tatsoi, bok choi, watercress, borage, rocket and giant purple mustard.

Mixed leaves edit

Some months later, thanks to a super-dry July, the chickens’ enthusiasm for salad and our squeamish wing clipping (as fellow chicken-blogger Julie Adolph notes, “chickens are not penguins“), this is mostly what the salad patch looks like:

Borage super closeup

Borage: it’s a survivor.  Apparently it’s an unfashionable term in ecological circles these days, but I reckon mustard leaves (“too spicy!”) and borage (“too furry!”) are the the climax community of our salad patch.

In theory, you can eat borage leaves – they taste like cucumber.  Very very hairy cucumber.  The flowers are gorgeous though: fab in a salad, especially thrown in with some fire-engine red nasturtium flowers and perhaps faded yellow (rather chewy)  blooms of aragula, or the tiny white floral clusters that sway around the garden when you let daikon radish go to seed.  The idea of freezing blue “starflowers” in ice cubes for fancy-pants drinks rather appeals to me too.

I suspect we will have more borage flowers in time for ice-clinking weather.  It self seeds very reliably, it seems, which troubles me a little, since we’re a hop skip and a jump from the edge of the bush.  Easy enough to pull out, though, and a bee-flower too.  There’s the usual unsubstantiated talk of companion planting – in this case with strawberries, which I imagine must look good at the very least.  I’ll keep an eye on it: it may have to be exiled, like lemon balm, that enjoyed our shady slope just a bit too much, or the eye-catching but definitely weedy red orach.  But for now, I’ll keep pleasing the bees.

Borage bee flower

Bee-ing positive

Tropic snow and bee

It’s dry as a chip in the garden: less than 20% the average amount of July rainfall in Sydney and bushfires have already starting in the north of NSW, months ahead of the official fire season.  Warm too – a record 24 days of 18 degrees C and above.  It’s been 2.7 degrees C above the historical average for July.  Climate change – it’s here, suckers.

But on the bright side, gorgeous blooms on the Tropic Snow peach, and plenty of bees.  Touch wood, the varroa mite hasn’t arrived in Australia (yet) and our honeybees seem to be doing better than the rest of the world. I’m thinking about getting a hive or two, either of native stingless bees (though you can’t collect their honey here in Sydney) or just your everyday honeybees.  So far I haven’t had any flowers from my kiwifruit vines (notoriously hard to pollinate), but you have to plan ahead.

In the mean time… welcome, visiting bees!  Please help yourselves to our beautiful if precipitate peach-blossom.