A taste of honey

We have a sticky situation.

The bees have made themselves at home behind the shingled walls of our verandah. On warm days the honey they make has been known to drip out onto the deck below, or even back into the ceiling inside the house where a stain on the plaster took several thousand licks of paint to conceal. Other than that though they don’t seem to be doing much real harm, and with the old verandah looking a bit shonky these days, it may be that honey is the only thing holding the whole humongous hotchpotch upright. With bees in trouble on several fronts, to my mind they might as well stay where they are. Our friends the bees are in need of all the help they can get.

Shingled verandah photographed in better repair in 1995.
Shingled verandah photographed in better repair in 1995.

You’ve probably heard that there’s something wrong with bees. They are on the decline worldwide with parasites, loss of habitat, pesticides and the mysterious colony collapse disorder held largely to blame, yet bees have been buzzing around this island earth since a time before the dinosaurs. As a motif they have long been used by man to symbolize industry and orderliness, yet on an evolutionary scale, it has taken us the mere blink of an eye to bring bees in this modern age to their bees’ bended knees.

Napoleon prided industry and orderliness and bee-lieved himself to be an emperor to boot, (watercolour on ivory by J Parent).
Napoleon prided industry and orderliness and bee-lieved himself to be an emperor to boot, (watercolour on ivory by J Parent).

The experimental film director Godfrey Reggio introduced the Native American word “Koyaanisqatsi” to popular culture in 1982. In the Hopi language it means “unbalanced life”, but in the more than three decades since, the situation Reggio described in film has not changed. All over Melbourne right now, developers are smashing up gardens for multiple occupancy dwellings, tearing up farm land for new suburbs, all the while cynically leaving here and there an occasional geriatric gum tree or token strip of park to appease the regulators. It’s not much chop for the people but it’s tantamount to a desert landscape for bees.

Bee hive boufants from Koyaanisqatsi, (Godfrey Reggio, ©1983).
Bee hive boufants from Koyaanisqatsi, (Godfrey Reggio, ©1983).
"...there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower."
“…there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower.”

August was almond pollination season in the southern states of Australia. The two almond trees we have in our garden already have fruit on them, at least until the cockies cotton on to it, but in the natural order of things there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower. It highlights the importance of a diversity in flowering plants in the garden, an idea that has been promoted by bee activist and author, Doug Purdie, in books like “Backyard Bees”.

By contrast the monoculture farming techniques used up country creates Koyaanisqatsi of the highest order. These techniques offer bees rich sources of nectar for short periods, then nothing for the remainder of the year. Commercial production of almonds in the triangle between South Australia, NSW and north-west Victoria is a case in point and highlights the inherent dangers of these practices. It involves vast numbers of almond trees being grown artificially in a marginal landscape using lots of Murray River irrigation. Because there are few other trees in this area, truck-loads of bee hives are brought in from interstate every spring to assist in a pollination event which is is as surprising as it is unsustainable. Bees are brought from as far away as Queensland where worryingly a pest bee, the Asian Honey Bee, has recently been found. The Asian Honey Bee is believed to have been the original source of the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor which has caused so much damage to bee colonies around the planet. Australia remains one of the few places in the world where the destructor mite has not been seen but with the related Varroa jacobsoni already present on Asian honey bees around Townsville, the introduction of the destructor in the near future is now taken as a given. When that happens, it is farming practices like the almond pollination events of southern Australia that will make the spread of the mite across this island continent virtually unstoppable.

"Robbing a beehive": harvesting bush honey in the early years of the 20th century, central Victoria. Photograph by Lindsay G Cumming, c1910, State Library Victoria.
“Robbing a beehive”: harvesting bush honey in the early years of the 20th century, central Victoria. Photograph by Lindsay G Cumming, c1910, State Library Victoria.

The European bee so familiar to our gardens was introduced to Australia in 1822 and in the nectar rich regions of our flowering eucalypt forests it soon became firmly established. It is the heavy work horse of the pollination world, a typical hive containing about 80,000 bees. Native bees, of which there are about 2000 varieties, are by comparison smaller, generally solitary and produce less honey. To the early settlers with their peculiar idea of finders keepers, this great southern land where little bits of Europe seemed so easily to reinvent itself must have seemed like a land flowing with proverbial milk and honey. In due course it had to be admitted that the keepers weren’t the finders after all but while the milk comes in suburban cartons these days, at Yallambie the second part of that flow equation can be thought of as being quite literally true.

Bee boxes at the old Coghill home opposite the end of Jessop St, Greensborough, c1910, (Greensborough Historical Society picture).
Bee boxes at the old Coghill home opposite the end of Jessop St, Greensborough, c1910, (Greensborough Historical Society picture).

2. "Dr. Godfrey Howitt's garden" [sic]", SLV.
2. “Dr. Godfrey Howitt’s garden” [sic]”. Source: State Library of Victoria.
Bees were probably kept in this area from the early days and in the second of the State Library’s c1856 daguerreotypes of Robert Bakewell’s garden, a rectangular shape in a lower corner may be evidence of a bee box positioned at that time on the Plenty River flats. If this interpretation could be proved to be correct, then in would put the Bakewells at the cutting edge of apiarist technology at that time since bee boxes with removable combs, as opposed to the more traditional skeps, were only perfected by Lorenzo Langstroth from an earlier design at the start of the 1850s.

This portrait of Louisa Anne Meredith was her favourite which she described as "unadulterated vanity", (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).
Louisa Anne Meredith, (Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts).

Peter Barrett in “The Immigrant Bees”, (Springwood, 1995) quotes from Louisa Anne Meredith’s book “My Home in Tasmania” and uses her book as evidence of the Merediths’ bee keeping activities in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s. So the sight of bee boxes at Yallambee during Louisa’s 1856 visit would not, by association, seem to have been so out of place.

The Tembys kept bees during their tenure at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century and a son of Ethel was still keeping bee boxes in Yallambie Park when we came to live here in the early 1990s. There were bees living inside a hollow oak in the Homestead garden at the time and I mentioned them to Ethel’s son, thinking they might be of use to him. “Yes, I can dispose of those feral bees,” he answered meaningfully. And so that was the end of that.

Bee box on the south lawn at Yallambie Homestead. Photograph from "Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1", by Graeme Butler, 1985.
Bee box on the south lawn at Yallambie Homestead. Photograph from “Heidelberg Conservation Study, Part 1”, by Graeme Butler, 1985.

The bees are still in the oak and have now spread to an elm. They may have been the original source of the bees in our verandah. At this time of year the garden is literally buzzing with the busy little blighters. The Pride of Madeiras in our garden are in bloom and truly live up to their axiom, “the bee flowers”.

The "bee flowers" at Yallambie, September, 2016.
The “bee flowers” at Yallambie, September, 2016.

The above is about as good as I could manage with my simple point and shoot camera but it has been a good spring and there are plenty of other flowers in the garden around which the bees have been plying their trade. Some time ago my father in law turned up with a new lens on his camera and took the following series of photographs:

zygomarguerite_daisydaisy

lavenderWhen seen up close in these pictures at a size not usually possible to our eyes, I like to wonder, ‘What goes on inside those little pin size heads?’ It’s all a question of scale and macro lens technology, but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life? Do they know something we don’t know? Maybe you would find their space ships had been, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “due to a terrible miscalculation of scale… accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”

"...but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life?"
“…but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life?”

Bees are known to forage up to 8km from their hives, even without their space ships, so the bees centrally located here at Yallambie are potentially now at work across the entire length and breadth of the City of Banyule. The Council doesn’t have any special planning laws restricting bee keeping in the community, providing all activities remain in accordance with the Apiary Code of Practice which requires the owner of hives to provide a nearby water source and also limits the number of hives and their location within urban environments. Bless them. I wonder if it insists on drinking straws for the bees as well?

Australia is a huge producer of honey and we actually produce more honey than our population of 23 million can consume. At the same time however we import honey into this country on a large scale. Australian honey is very pure and is therefore a valuable commodity on the world market. Not surprisingly therefore, cheap foreign honey is imported for the locals while the best home grown produce goes overseas. Ask any New Zealander about the cost of dairy produce in their country and you will hear a similar tale told.

For all of the problematic future facing our bees, they remain an integral part of the eco-system and the single most important link in our industrial food chain. All our crops are heavily reliant on their pollinating efforts but bees have been around a long time and over the passage of millennia have witnessed many changes. Whether they survive the current climate of change reflects on the ability of mankind itself to survive. So plant something flowering today and give the bees a helping hand. A world without bees would be quite simply a world without.

The busy bees
The busy bees
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