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 flash of gold and a stash of blue

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Season of mists and mellow tinnies: the Hawkesbury in fall

Autumn lasted for aroundabout a fortnight this year.  The endless summer of an apocalyptic El Nino wrapped up in mid-May, giving the deciduous trees an extremely tight schedule to dispense with their leaves before this weekend’s torrential rain.

We’ve had autumnal glory in the kitchen as well.  When Keats talked about the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m not sure he was thinking about bananas.  In theory our crop of tiny fragrant fruits should have been perfect for lunchboxes, but I made the mistake of describing the first-ripened one as “Geoffrey”.   After this, not only Geoffrey but all his brothers were deemed “too cute” to be eaten.

As well as the gold in the fruitbowl, there’s been plenty of gold in the trees.  The yellow-tailed black cockatoos are back in force, mewling and crunching in the radiata pines.

Yellow tail and autumn leaves horizontal

Fly by from a yellow tailed black cockatoo

And for the first time this year, I’ve noticed the migrating yellow-faced honeyeaters.  Thousands of them pass through the Blue Mountains most autumns, it seems, but this year they’ve been funnelled between the mountains and the coast, through the Hunter Valley.  I first spotted them darting through the riverside casuarinas at Karuah National Park, on our trip north, but since we’ve been back, I’ve seen flocks of them with their travelling companions, the noisy friarbirds, pouring up the Hawkesbury.  I’ve even seen them on the way to work, taking a moment out on their journey to watch the commuters boarding the morning train at Berowra Station.

But not all the autumnal excitement has been touched with gold.  Last weekend, halfway through detaining my broad beans (fencing, netting and a mulch of lavender and liquidambar – doubtless all in vain) I spotted a little collation of royal blue underneath the pomegranate tree. Nerf gun ammunition, the lid of a milk container, a peg.  Signs that we need to tidy up the yard, and a hint that randy bowerbirds might just do it for us.

 

More autumnal reflections from our backyard:

Let them eat light!

Autumn in terminal decline?

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Backyard gold

How to exploit your termite work force

One of permaculture’s big ideas is makig plants and animals your agricultural labourers.  It’s not so much hitching the family Great Dane to the plough as letting your furred and feathered workers, more or less of their own free will, roam through your food forest grazing on weeds and wolfing down snails.  Say goodbye to tedious annual seed-raising, planting and hoeing: your self-reliant plants will look after themselves and keep an eye on each other, shading and nitrogenating and breaking wind (if you know what I mean).

Sometimes it works.  Our tamarillo, banana, monstera and tumeric plants have formed a chlorophyllerous collective. We have tip-pruning possums, chickens that mow the lawn and do the weeding, rat-catching diamond pythons and bandicoots on a search and destroy mission for curl grubs.  This week I even had a local katydid offering to supervise the manufacture of my home-grown pesto.

Unfortunately some of the local flora and fauna seem to have skipped crucial pages of Bill Mollison’s permaculture classics.  My custard apple tree, for instance, appears to need assistance to shed its leaves in a timely manner. Really, has it come to this? I spend my precious hours of leisure depilating fruit trees?

Meanwhile in the kiwifruit arbor, lacking both enthusiastic pollinators and RoboBees (yep, New Zealand has them), we’re having to take a prurient interest in the sex lives of our male and female kiwifruit vines. To be honest, my child labourers were about as useful as the diffident insects.  I’m baffled.  How could standing on the top of a ladder tickling plant reproductive organs with paintbrush fail to entertain?

The sorry state of my home-made kiwifruit planters remind me of another insect labour fail. Termites.  What can a permie do with them?

Thanks to our hippie ways, our place is a kind of termite nature reserve, where wood-eating insects can flourish, peacefully ingesting fruit trees and vernacular architecture, without fear of retaliation.  It seems, when they tired of consuming ad-hoc structures made of discarded bed bases, they like to break it up by devouring whole stands of artichokes as a kind of palate cleanser.

Termite eat artichokes – who knew?  Last year’s gorgeous silver leafed statement in the outdoor room is this year a soggy larvae-infested hole in the ground.

But let’s not lose faith in our insect workforce!  We need to reframe this problem. Bill Mollison once consoled someone tending a denuded garden: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficit“.  Thinking along these lines let’s put it this way: we don’t have a termite problem: we have a woodwork surplus.

When we first arrived here six years ago, we were puzzled by the gratuitous decking around the washing line and the apparently pointless wooden walkway that took you there.  Our neighbours said they’d scratched their heads as they watched this expensive folly being nailed together.

The mystery was illuminated by the lingering damp patch by the garden gate.  Somewhere between the fig tree and the passionfruit vine, roundabout where the sewage line runs down from the house, there was a persistent and troubling damp patch.  RB wanted to investigate.  Having experienced the delights of sewage tumbling through another backyard and with a terrifying vision of a poo fountain raining down on my veggie patch, I implored him to leave it to the professionals.  But I made the error of leaving him unattended one day after work.

Thankfully I was spared the realisation of my nightmare of e-coli amongst the asparagus.  It turns out our damp patch was an old storm water drain, busted through when the some new and exciting toilet was installed in the house.  As one does, rather than repair the drain and desoggify the garden, our predecessors just built a walkway over the swampland.  What with the convenient supply of moisture, this wooden path has been a fine buffet for the termites over the years.

Thanks to our cellulose loving friends, a short stroll to hang out the laundry had become as fraught with peril as a high-wire walk between two sky scrapers.  Collecting a clean pair of undies from the line carried the ever-present risk of a broken ankle or at least the embarrassing prospect of a plank snapping under your weight, a reminder that you may have had too many marinated artichokes on your pasta lately. Yes, I could have fixed it properly with some decent hardwood or a load of treated timber.  But that just wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the thing.  Instead, it’s become steadily more raddled looking, thanks to running repairs with a random selection of timber found by the side of the road.

But even with my love of hammers and heavy rubbish, I finally had enough.  The walkway had to go.  Even in 35 degree heat, the demolition job was a highpoint of my weekend.  There’s little more viscerally satisfying than ripping something to bits with your bare hands, even if it has been fatally weakened by termites first.

But what to do with the hardwood footings, cemented and bolted in place?  Digging them up would be tricky work, haunted by the ever-present risk of a spade through the sewage pipe.  And then it came to me in a blinding flash: with a bit of help from our termite tenants, moist soil heaped up onto wood frames would do the job for me.

So now the erstwhile walkway is a (very very slightly) raised bed, fenced in by scraggy aviary wire: yet another addition to the carceral complex that is our garden.  As I water the cucumbers and the cherry tomatoes,  I’ll be helping our Willing Workers on Organic Farms Backyards, the termites, demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics.

It’s been a long time since I sat through high school physics.  Things might well have moved on in the inexplicable post-Newtonian world. But I can say with absolute confidence that, in our yard at least, there continues to be “a natural tendency of isolated systems to degenerate into a more disordered state”.

If they weren’t disordered in the first place, the termites, the possums and the brush turkeys would pretty soon make them that way.  Good work if you can get it, lads!

Bats about tamarillos

This time last year, a raid on my tamarillo crop had me pondering on possums.   What spidie sense tells the resident marsupials to gobble up your perfectly-ripe figs and grapes the very night before you plan to harvest them?  Are they tri-chromatic mutants like we humans, with gerry-rigged colour vision just good enough to grab a ripe mango before the visually well-endowed parrot gets it first? Or do they sniff out your glorious organic harvest in defiance of their typical mammalian red-green colour blindness?

But this year I’ve been mostly thinking about bats.

I’ve had a bumper crop this year off my quick growing and beautiful tamarillo tree, though not quite the 20 kilos that others brag about. So I’ve not been too miffed to find some of the ripe fruit scattered on the ground, flesh neatly scooped out, or to spot a few gnawed items left dangling on the tree.  All the other members in my household are either under ten or Scottish, and consequently I have no human competition for weird fruits of any kind.  It would seem churlish not to share with the local critters.

So who are my fellow tamarillo lovers?  I suspect the grey-faced flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus), the most common “macrobats” in this part of New South Wales.  While I haven’t eyeballed a single flying fox at our place, I’ve heard them playing cricket with the toxic fruits of the cocos palms for weeks.  Soon after lights out, there’s a sequence of companionable shrieks, rustles and thumps, and the palms start raining seeds onto the roof.

One of the many reasons cocos palms are a dangerous pleasure for flying foxes is that the fallen fruit lures them down where they can be chewed up and spat out by the local dogs.  Every morning for the last month or so I’ve found a little piece of installation art on a stump near the cocos palm – a few half-eaten fruit arranged with an eye to the design possibilities of the log’s in-house fungus.  I thought this was a convenient possum picnic spot, but I’m wondering if it’s a safe haven for bats who are obviously unaware that our house is guarded not by dogs but by night-blind attack chickens.

Our tamarillo tree (“Matimba”, as our eight year old has named her) is just beneath the hateful-but-expensive-to-remove cocos palm, in a jumble of shade-tolerating subtropical plants – galangal, ginger, bananas, naranjilla.  My kind of (sub)urban density.

Flying foxes are opportunists. They don’t just eat eucalyptus nectar, lillypilly fruits and mangrove leaves but take what they can find, and are willing to fly a long way to find it.  The closest bat “camps” to our place are in Gordon, Warriewood or Avalon – twenty kilometres or away or more.  Having come all that distance for a feed, only a bat-masochist who relishes the guts-ache produced by cocos fruits would turn up its nose at the delightful passionfruit-meets-apricot flavoured snack down below.

Unlike possums with their dud colour vision, megabats seem to be spoiled for choice when it comes to tracking down a ripe tamarillo.  When our mammalian common ancestor was hiding in a burrow and sneaking around in the dark to avoid veloceraptors, being able to see all the colours of the rainbow was less critical than decent night-sight.  Despite a largely nocturnal existence, fruitbats however have evolved the ability to see not just short wavelength but also medium and long wavelength light – and, like birds, can even see in ultraviolet, perhaps to spot flowers and fruits at dusk, at dawn and in bright moonlight.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that my surviving tamarillos were hiding underneath the banana and the monstera leaves, invisible to fruit bats cruising past above.  But flying foxes also have a pretty good sense of smell, so after the mysterious overnight disappearance of my first kiwifruit (and my mulberries, and my persimmons, and my grapes…) I don’t think I’ll chance it.

They may share colour vision with us primates and may even share some of our sexual peccadillos, but unless megabats evolve opposable thumbs and can open my back door, they’re not getting any more of my harvest this year.

Andy Ninja’s great escape

Andy Ninja was always a chicken with a mission.  She arrived at our place, in the company of her rather macho sister Harley, already in possession of a name that perfectly captured her special qualities, thanks to the penetrating insights of my chicken-wrangling nieces.

Within a year she’d made her first break for freedom.  A quarter acre block just couldn’t contain her ambitions.

Most mornings we’d wake up to find her scratching up the trad in the front garden, her daily constitutional in no way hindered by clipped flight feathers or the locked garden gate.  Then one morning she toodled up the drive and didn’t come back.

There was no tell tale trail of torn feathers, but after a couple of days I tried to gently break it to the kids that Andy probably wasn’t coming back.  All the fox-baiting national park rangers in the world weren’t going to save a chook on the loose overnight on the mean streets of Berowra.

My eldest was in denial.  She hand-crafted a “missing” poster, complete with full-colour portrait and I nailed it over our mailbox.  Some kind of closure at least, I figured.

A week later, I get a phone call from some folks down the street.  Andy Ninja, it seems, was that proverbial chicken who crossed the road.  She had introduced herself to a new family, laid them some eggs and made herself at home in their kitchen.  They were in love with her.  There were childrens’ tears as the unrepentant adventurer was returned.

Don’t get me wrong.  Andy liked to roam, but she knew her own stomping ground. A couple of years back we spent a few months overseas.  While we were gone, some young Swedes rented our place.  They weren’t keen to be small-holders, so our generous and well organised neighbours, chicken aficionados from way back, offered to take in our birds for the duration.

We gave the chooks a week or so to settle into their new high security quarters – a proper coop, enclosed on all sides with wire, with a sturdy dog-proof outdoor run.  After our haphazard fencing and half-baked sleeping arrangements, surely the chooks would be safe and sound in the custody of some proper chicken keepers.

By Day Two, Andy Ninja had made her way home.  I returned from work to find her mooching around in our yard.  We had stern words and passed her over the fence.

On Day Three, she was back again.  Our chicken-wise neighbour assured us confidently that with close wing clipping, there would be no repeat offenses.

We woke up on the morning of our flight out to see this view from the window.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when we arrived in London, to receive a slightly aggravated email from our Swedish tenants asking what to do about the chicken that, despite previous arrangements, had turned up on the premises.

Or to receive another one, a week later, saying that actually, it turns out that they quite liked having the chicken around and what should they buy it for treats.

While we were gone, Andy Ninja was quite the chicken around town, it seems.  Our poultry-hosting neighbours would get phone calls at all hours reporting sightings of a neat brown chicken strolling down the main street.  Was it one of theirs?  Our friends up the drive also got regular visits.  Andy would pop into their shed to learn a bit more about welding, or perambulate through their herb garden to monitor the watering.

She survived abandonment by jetsetters.  She survived a week on her own on the street.  She survived, we suspect, a midnight attack by an ambitious tawny frogmouth, perched, as she was, all alone on the top of the chook dome.  At one point, Andy transitioned to become a she-rooster who crowed in the morning and made eyes at her flock mates.  And then started laying eggs again.  After months under surveillance as a suspect in The Case of the Cannibal Chicken, she emerged, eventually, entirely vindicated.

I have to admit, Andy wasn’t wildly keen when the hefty newcomers arrived and stole her place at the top of the pecking order, but she rolled with the punches.  She was bit miffed when her perch, the chook tractor, was repurposed into a brush-turkey-proof brassica zone, but she sighed and settled down next to the pushy new girls on the edge of the potted figs. She outlived her bikie sister and a large percentage of the world’s twenty billion chickens, with their abbreviated and unfree lives.

But she didn’t survive this week.

Something – maybe Marek’s disease, maybe “wet” fowl pox, maybe both – has rolled through our little flock, despite our middle class pretention of expensive, vaccinated hens.  Luna quietly expired a week or so ago, and despite an attempt to segregate the sick bird, Andy went a few days after.  On her last day, looking horribly under the weather, she simply disappeared, her mysterious ninja powers undiminished by age and illness.

She’s made her final break for it and it looks like she’s got away for good this time.  We will surely miss her.

Epic potato fail

Over the years I have reconciled myself to the fact that I will harvest, more or less to the tuber, precisely the same number of spuds as the number of extortionately expensive seed potatoes I put in at the beginning of the season.  Only the delicious memory of my friend Mary’s fabulous Greenbank allotment crop keeps me dreaming of fresh dug salad potatoes and hoping that my years of abject failure as a tater farmer are simply a consequence of a sequence of unfortunate accidents.

This year I thought I had made a breakthrough.  Why not cluster my Kipfler and Pink Fir Apple spuds around the base of equally hungry plants – the banana trees, the citrus, the celery – and mulch them all within an inch of their lives?  The piles of sugar cane straw and the level of expectation were both at an all time high.

On the left, I present you with the potato patch.  On the right, this year’s harvest.

I’m blaming this guy: I believe it’s a flea beetle. Found – no surprises – loitering below the Eureka lemon, which as we have already established is the garden headquarters of Bond movie insect super-villains. Flea beetle has no doubt been plotting world domination with the now well-ensconced victors of Operation Bronze Orange Bug, perhaps while riding on a secret underground monorail that speeds him directly to the locations of my poor doomed potato plants.

I love the advice on this organic gardening site for combatting the flea beetle.  Their main recommendation: blasting a metre wide strip of barren lifeless earth right around your veg.  Now, where did I put that flame thrower?

There seem to be two schools of thought on organic pest management.  On the one hand, you have the garden hygienists, the short-back-and-sides crew.  Weeds? Hoe them! Plants? In neat rows! Spent crops? Rip them out and burn them!  And then eat the ashes! Quail in the bright light of day, insect fiends! There is no escape!

And then there’s the permies and the hippies, with their food forests, their companion planting schemes, and their growing guilds.  Spent crops?  Let them flower and attract the hoverfliesStep away from that spade – think of the the busy worms and their delicate underground cities, rich with seams of organic matter from the recycled roots of yesterday’s vegetables.  That patch of nettles in the corner? A fabulous buffet for butterfly larvae, binding together precious topsoil from erosion.  The stack of rotten logs and twigs by the back fence? A habitat for sleepy lizards and an overwintering insect hotel.  Gaia is at one with all her four and six legged companions.

This particular site seems to want to it a little bit both ways: … Why not grow some lovely cottage garden flowers as companions to your plants? The delightful blooms of Queen Anne’s Lace will attract beneficial insects… and then you must rip the evil bug-harbouring weeds out by their nematode encrusted roots leaving only pure naked earth, free from the taint of exoskeletal evil!!

I’m squarely in the hippie camp, from sheer laziness if nothing else.  Swathes of bare soil are indicative of a tragically perished garlic crop or a chicken incursion, rather than some kind of pest reduction plan.  So I will be keeping a careful eye on my eggplant seedlings, also susceptible to flea beetle attack, which have, semi-miraculously, successfully made the transition from windowsill seed tray to vegetable patch.

I suspect I know the secret of their resilience – these are “Little Finger” aubergines.  I feel deployment of plant varieties named after nakedly ambitious characters in popular fantasy television, particularly arch manipulators dab handed with a dagger, is a form of psychological plant protection under-explored in permaculture.  Think you can take “Little Finger”, flea beetle?  You may want to think again.