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.

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!

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!

The first winds of autumn

It’s been a dispiriting harvest.  No zucchinis.  Not one microvegetable.  I managed to get the plants to grow, thanks to divine intervention – well, an arresting children’s painting of Cyclops on my cardboard sheet mulch.  Not to mention, those secular forms of protection: chicken wire, veggie netting and steel reinforcing wire – in fact everything short of kevlar, plexiglass and concrete.  So my zucchini plants survived, but perhaps traumatised by their oppressive high-security environment, they steadfastly refused to reproduce.

I remember my allotment-owning pal Mary’s desperate missions to dispose of her harvest of marrows: abandoning big bags of courgettes on her friends’ front steps at the crack of dawn and legging it before her mates, undoubtedly already in possession of a fridge bursting with zucchini, could refuse.  Websites and blogs abound with strategies for hiding surplus zucchini from disgruntled family members in breads, slices, chutneys, muffins.  Whereas I can only fantasise about concealing pulverised marrows in my children’s ice cream.

Everyone else’s garden seems to have rampant marrows as eager to breed as randy rabbits, whereas I have somehow I have managed to create zucchini plants with the delicate sensibilities of the giant panda.

After the trauma of the zucchini experience (not to mention the underperforming watermelons, the disappearing peaches and the epic potato fail) I am considering giving up on planting altogether.  Instead I think maybe I’ll just edit the plants that arrive under their own steam.  Feral gardening.

For instance, I’ve recent realised the the garden is awash with purslane, an edible weed with a whole lot of omega 3 fatty acids.  Flavour wise, it doesn’t rock my world but since the brush turkeys and possums seem feel the same, I may have to work up an interest. I’m still still waiting for the sweet potato vines to hit their stride so I can make free (or more precisely, make stir fry) with their new growth and my warrigal greens have once again been murmalised by something with a sharp eye for bush tucker, so even with the fair success of “lettuce under a draining rack” strategy, the salad bowl is currently a bit bare.

Along similar lines, I’ve finally reconciled myself to the self-sown jerusalem artichokes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love jerusalems with a mad, colon-exploding passion, and I’ve tried to grow them in many locations around the yard.  They are almost unkillable.  Eight foot high plants don’t normally take to container gardening, but back in my expat days I got a decent crop out of a modest sized pot under grey British skies.

Given their invasive qualities – leave just one small tuber in the ground and next year’s crop is sorted – my first plan was to grow them in places where little else would thrive.  I set up a kind of slow motion, plant-based reality TV show: The Great Australian Weed Off. Running bamboo, gigantic grass grass that grows through concrete, versus Jerusalem artichoke, towering beauty that sneers at weaklings who need full sun, regular watering or fertile soil.  Which would survive on a permanently shaded rubble filled slope subject to occasional flash flooding?  I had faith in my sun chokes, but given the number of critters that range this place cruising for food, the bamboo’s quotient of deadly cyanide seemed to be its ace in the hole.  My artichokes disappeared without a trace.

So when some artichokes popped up on the northern edge of the veggie garden, springing from a few peelings I threw to the chickens when the chook tractor was in that neck of the woods, I was not so much delighted as resigned.  My dream permaculture garden would probably not include gargatuan invasive plants blocking the autumnal sunlight.  But after a decade of watching fastidiously planned planting schemes going to hell, my gardener’s hubris is slowly waning.  Who am I, an organism entirely lacking in chlorophyll, to decide what grows where?

So the jerusalem artichokes have been left to tower over their neighbours, and it seems like it’s been a good year.  The plants have put on great show, looking exactly like the cousins of the sunflower that they are.  I’m too impatient to wait for them to die back before I start harvesting, so last weekend, I burrowed around to get the first couple of tubers of the season for a gourmet touch in my potato dauphin.

Since they’re so danged delicious, why harvest so few?  It’s not that I’m worried that pinching more tubers will kill off the floral display or thin out the harvest.  It takes a lot more brutality than that to cramp the style of a jerusalem artichoke.  It’s the flatulent dinner guests that trouble me.  There’s no getting around it: jerusalem artichokes will make you fart.  And as a longstanding vegetarian I should know.  Baked beans have nothing on it.

Jerusalems (like the completely unrelated globe artichokes) contain a sugar polymer called inulin, which is totally undigestible, making it high in fibre, a handy sweetener for diabetics and a probiotic which feeds the bacteria in your greater intestine.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  In the thrall of this glowing nutritional report card, Mother Jones recommends using jerusalems, with its high fibre, high iron, high calorie payload  as a substitute for potatoes.  A huge bowl of mashed jerusalems – my idea of heaven!  But best not consumed before, say, a graduation ceremony, a silent Buddhist retreat or a solo piccolo performance in the Sydney Opera House, since when those friendly bacteria consume inulin they produce enough gas for a live re-enactment of the Hindenberg Disaster.

I love this vegetable so much I’m not willing to give it up.  My other half has worked this out, and now inspects any autumn stew with deep suspicion.  I’ve heard rumours about ways of deflating artichokesslow cooking, long keeping and pickling.  I’m not convinced by any of these.  In my experience, slowly and gently does it: a diced tuber in a vichyssoise, a handful roasted in the oven, one or two thinly sliced in a stir fry.

And make sure the next day is spent outside, in the fresh air of the garden. Or in the company of artichoke loving friends.

Jailbreak!

Cucumbers will go to desperate lengths to flee an attack-flock of brush turkeys, eh?

So is it better to die fighting than live in chains?  I’m not sure where my zucchini would stand on this one.

I’ve managed to keep the plants alive under an ancient perforated veggie net, held up by a rusty drum stand and contorted steel reinforcing wire.  Shyla the Australorp sneaks through to lay the odd egg but so far the brush turkeys haven’t spotted an entry-point.  Which is lucky, because if they made it in, there’s no way they would ever find their way out again.  I’d arrive in the garden one morning to find a turkey skeleton splayed out underneath the enormous hole these leaves are bursting through.

The bees don’t seem to have found the great big holes in the netting either.  Or perhaps the local pollinators suffer from claustrophobia.  I’ve seen loads of male flowers but the little golden zucchinis just seem to wither on the vine.  I’m trying to figure out if it’s (a) the plant aborting seedless, non-fertilised fruit (b) blossom end rot, thanks to insufficient calcium (c) rampant powdery mildew, caused by constrained circumstances (d) despair induced by a life Inside or (e) all of the above.

It hasn’t been a good year for jam making, either.  Here’s the breba crop which was looking so lovely mid-winter. Not really worth setting aside a day in the kitchen for preserving this one.  On the right, “dried figs”, but not as we know them.  A few hot days saved me the cost of a dehydrator, but I’m not sure gastronomy is the winner here.

And a sad discovery this morning –  the lone survivor of my bumper crop of coyly fleshy persimmon flowers ripened, unattended, and was demolished overnight, probably by a young possum taking a leisurely midnight stroll from his summer house above the air conditioner in the granny flat.  Only a few days back I was thinking if might be time to wrap the precious persimmon in one of the net exclusion bags sitting neatly folded on the bench in the toolshed.

Zero tolerance, it seems, is the only solution.  Imprisoning the chickens is mean,  imprisoning the possums and the brush turkeys illegal.  Whereas imprisoning vegetables, pollination issues aside, seems to work quite well.

Small scale vegetable prisons seem to do the business for seedlings and your slender or ground hugging plants, but now I have the frame of an aged trampoline at my disposal, I’m thinking big. And I’ve started looking at the superannuated chook tractor with a new eye.

Yes, it has traditionally been Andy Ninja’s lofty sleeping quarters, but with a bit of dusting off, what a fine brush turkey exclusion zone it would make.  Perhaps, Andy, it’s time you reconsidered the virtues of Palm Beach, the vernacular modernist architectural masterpiece I painstakingly made you and your feathered friends a year ago, now sadly abandoned by every damn chicken in the flock.  Even the brush turkeys don’t try to sleep there.

Now there’s an idea: if the new improved carceral complex with its walk-in prisons doesn’t protect my veggies from assaults by poultry, maybe I should start planting them in the chook house.

The inconspicuous, the insignificant and the underwhelming

Sure, to the swanky author of a well-received volume on gardening it’s a throwaway line: “has insignificant flowers”, “flowers are inconspicuous”.  But how about some consideration for feelings, eh?  What’s wrong with “reserved”, “low profile”, “unpretentious”?

My 7 year old drew me aside the other day and whispered conspiratorially “At school I drew a picture of a plant’s bits!!!” In the light of this insight, which I really hope she didn’t share with her teacher, perhaps we could even go with “modest flowers”?

To be honest, I find persimmon flowers faintly perturbing when upended and exposed to the rude light of day.  Much better to let them shelter under their curtain of leaves.

I do, however, need to be rather forward with my demure custard apple flowers soon.  They may not look like much but there’s the smell of perfume in the air.  Time to wave my magical pollinating paintbrush and help create some atemoyan fecundity.  Or, given my pruning anxieties and the consequent fact that most of the new flowers are more than two and a half metres off the ground, perhaps it’s time to fall off a poorly located stepstool, crashing through branches, crushing multiple flowers and possibly poking myself in the eye with pollen-dusted painting gear on my way down.

Thankfully there’s no need to hand pollinate the midgen berries to get tasty little purple-and-white fruits.  Otherwise I’d have to get one of those three-haired brushes they use to paint a portraits on a grain of rice.

And then there’s the flowers that are not so much shy as downright recalcitrant.  On the left, a NSW Christmas bush down the road.  On the right, the unimpressive shade-dwelling specimen in our yard.

And another offender: Kunzea ambigua doing its thing elsewhere on the left and in our garden, not even making the effort to take a decent photograph.  Very poor form.

Thank goodness for institutional plantings.  Just because councils like to plant it on the median strip doesn’t mean I’m not happy to see the blue flax lily producing its, shall we say, somewhat coy flowers in the shade under the maple tree.  If your camera is close enough, even the teeniest flowers are significant. Could that be a metaphor for this blog? Or is it just a sales pitch for a macro lens?

An unhappy threesome

The threesome in the bottom of the garden is just not working out well, or not for my lonesome lady kiwiberry anyway.

Most kiwi fruit are dioecious – to produce fruit you need both male and female plants.  Commercial producers have maybe one staminate pollinator to eight fruit-bearing pistillate plants. In our garden, there isn’t enough space for such large scale polygamy.  All in all, the plant sex around here is playing into the hands of the social conservatives.

The couply-couply Sweetie kiwifruits in the “solar pergola” have done their baby-making (with a little bit of help from me).  Inspired by their example, the Mt Tomah Red kiwiberry is now in bloom.  But it’s just not happening for Hairy Hayward, her pollinator (or his lovely vigorous and hairy wife).  It takes chillier weather to get their blood up, I reckon.

I’m not quite sure what should happen next.  Mr Sweetie has done his dash fertilisation-wise this year.  I have no shame – I am willing to act like a bee and transport the good stuff around the garden but I’ve gotta have something to work with.  Perhaps internet dating is the way to go: “Would like to meet: generous pollen-laden male kiwifruit.  A love of warm weather essential.  Variety and nectar-production unimportant. Must be willing to reproduce immediately.  No time-wasters please”

She may not have a fully functioning pollinator, but Mt Tomah Red does have a new BFF.  A teenaged possum has snuck into the marsupial sunroom – between an old pane of glass above the barely used airconditioner and the boarded up window behind it.  I don’t think he realises it’s like the Big Brother house in there: he might feel like he’s having a secluded nap amongst the kiwi vines but in reality anyone hanging out the washing can look in and catch him snoring.  And if he’s hoping that Madam Tomah Red is going to provide him with a sequence of midnight snacks, he’s mistaken there as well.