Thirsty Bees

img_3051When my husband created a pond in the yard, I expected the damselflies, mayflies, midges, diving beetles, and other aquatic insects to show up. I even expected the heron who occasionally drops by to sample the goldfish.

I didn’t necessarily expect the honey bees.

I wasn’t surprised when they showed up, though. What surprised me was the sheer numbers that have shown up this summer. The edge of the pond has been humming for weeks as hundreds of bees jostle for space on the best perches.

Honey bees, like all animals, need water–at least a litre a day per hive. The bees don’t just drink the water; they also use it to dissolve honey that has crystallised, dilute honey for larval food, and to cool the hive on hot days.

When scout bees find a good water source, they mark it with pheromones that tell the other bees it’s a good spot. I reckon by now, the edge of our pond is sticky with pheromones (or at least stinky with them), because there’s always a crowd there.

And after yesterday’s 31°C (88°F) temperatures and 130 kph (81 mph) wind, the pond was extra crowded today.

I’m happy to oblige the bees. I need them to pollinate my vegetables, and they’re not aggressive when they’re foraging away from the hive, in spite of the potentially frightening crowds. The arrangement is a win-win situation for all of us.

Get Outside—See Cool Stuff

The swarm--apologies for the image quality; I'm allergic to bee stings.

The swarm–apologies for the image quality; I’m allergic to bee stings.

I’m trying to make myself go out for a walk at lunchtime every day. I’ll admit that I can be a bit of a slave driver when I’m working, and I don’t always manage it. I have a tendency to simply work through lunch, and then suddenly discover it’s late afternoon.

In truth, the walks available to me from my front door aren’t necessarily all that inspiring—endless agricultural fields in every direction.

But you can’t experience anything if you don’t first go out. Yesterday, I took the most boring of the boring walks from my house—the one that doesn’t offer so much as a mailbox for the first kilometre. Don’t ask why I chose that way—maybe I wanted to clear my mind, as I’d been doing intense editing all morning.

On this most boring of walks, I happened to see something awesome—a honey bee swarm.

We are blessed with many nearby apiaries, and I always have a plentiful supply of bees to pollinate my garden vegetables, but even so, it’s unusual to spot a swarm. This one was hanging in a drooping mass off the neighbour’s fence.

Bees swarm to create a new colony. It’s usually the old queen who leaves her hive with a large portion of the workers. A new queen will hatch in her absence and take over the old hive.

The swarming bees leave the hive and gather nearby while scout bees search for a new hive location. This is what I saw—the resting swarm. It likely flew away to a new home within a few hours. Where those bees are now, I don’t know, but I hope they found a nice place nearby from which to visit my garden.

So, my most boring walk was amazing. That reminds me, I still haven’t gotten out for a walk today. Time to step away from the desk and get outside. Who knows what I might see?

Humming Rosemary

There isn’t much in bloom at this time of year around our place. Daffodils, crocuses, a few early daisies and other weeds in the lawn.

And the rosemary.

Rosemary is perennial here, and grows into a large shrub unless regularly trimmed. The rosemary in the herb knot in the front yard is kept quite small, but two bushes by the side of the house are allowed to range more widely. They’re about two metres tall, and almost as wide. Right now they are in full bloom.

And they are absolutely filled with bees. I swear, there’s an entire hive there right now. The hum is audible from five metres away.

I love to watch bees on rosemary. Not only are they incredibly enthusiastic about the nectar, but they collect the purple pollen, which looks really cool in their pollen baskets.

We’ve been talking about re-envisioning the plantings at the side of the house. The new plan doesn’t have giant rosemary plants in it. Watching the bees enjoy the blooms in early spring, though, we might just have to rethink that.

Outside In

2016-01-01 16.46.05Window screens are uncommon in New Zealand.

It’s not that there is no need for them. This time of year I struggle to keep the outside out of the house.

Flies, bees, wasps, mosquitoes, and moths all find their way in, to buzz, bite, and generally be a nuisance. Leaves and seeds blow in on the ever-present wind. And the occasional escaped chicken or feral cat wanders in, too.

So why no screens?

It makes sense if we look at why window screens are found elsewhere in the world.

In the United States, window screens were uncommon until the early 1900s, when they were suddenly mandated by local governments all over the country. An important advance of science was the reason for the new laws.

Today, with think of malaria, yellow fever, dengue, and a host of mosquito-borne diseases as tropical. But these “tropical” diseases, especially malaria, used to range all through Europe and North America. The ancient Romans invading Scotland, lost half their soldiers to Scotland’s local strain of malaria. Yellow fever and malaria were common in Boston and London. Philadelphia was decimated in 1793 by a yellow fever epidemic.

The connection between mosquitoes and malaria was discovered by entomologist Ronald Ross in 1897, and by 1900, mosquito control efforts were underway all over the world. Within a few years, window screens were being mandated by law in disease-hit areas. Most of those laws are still in place, as there is nothing preventing those mosquito-borne diseases from returning.

Here in New Zealand, we are remarkably free of mosquito borne diseases. Malaria, and yellow fever have never gained a foothold, though they almost certainly have shown up now and again in the form of sick travellers.

With no mosquito borne disease, the biters that slip in through my windows every night are just a nuisance, so screens haven’t been written into the building code.

But they would be nice to have…


100_4036 smParsley is a ubiquitous herb, easy to overlook, easy to undervalue.

It is said its seeds must go to the devil and back seven times before germinating. I don’t think it takes quite that long, but parsley is slow to germinate.

Once up, though, parsley is tough and long-lasting. The plants I start in August will survive spring frosts to flourish through the heat and drought of summer, and continue flourishing through the cold wet winter, to be finally pulled out in October of the following year, when they begin to bolt, to make room for new plants.

We eat parsley by the handful (none of this Tablespoon stuff), and love it in risi e bisi, soup, potatoes, and gratins.

We grow both the Italian flat-leaf and the curly varieties (because, why not?), and enjoy the flat-leaf parsley fresh in salads (or just standing up in the garden as we pass by). We also enjoy parsley mixed with other fresh herbs to make a non-basil pesto that is lovely on pasta or as a topping for polenta crostini.

Of course, the best reason to grow parsley in much of the world is to attract the beautiful swallowtail butterflies, whose caterpillars specialise on parsley and related plants, incorporating the toxins from the plants into their exoskeletons to serve as defence. Unfortunately, we have no swallowtails in New Zealand, but the flowers of parsley attract bees, flies, and our native butterflies in large numbers.

Blooming Broad Beans

100_3703 smI walked past the garden on my way to the compost pile two days ago, and smelled what has become one of my favourite smells of spring.

It is sickly-sweet, and the first time I smelled it, I thought it was disgusting.

It is the smell of blooming broad beans. And I have grown to love it as a harbinger of spring.

My garden isn’t the only place smelling like an overwrought florist’s shop. Local farmers grow huge fields of broad beans, and the smell wafts into the open windows of the car as I drive by.

Unfortunately, the first blossoms are a tease. They attract primarily bumble bees in the very early weeks of spring. The bumble bees steal nectar by chewing through the base of the flower, and don’t actually pollinate the flower. I won’t get beans from these early flowers.

Later, once the honey bees are fully active, we’ll start seeing the first little beans begin to lengthen. Until then, we’ll have to make do with the smell.

A new relationship with bees

DSC_0005 cropMy friend, Maryann, researches pollinator decline. Her focus is on honey bees, and how honey bee management can affect bee health.

The picture is a complex and disheartening one, but one that offers glimpses of what sustainable bee management could look like. Wherever they live, honey bees are beset by an array of diseases and parasites. Under the non-intensive, almost natural management regimes used in much of Africa, the bees fight off these pathogens and parasites without intervention from bee keepers. Intensely managed North American hives crumble under their onslaught.

North American hives are shifted from place to place, following the flowering crops, in order to provide pollination services for huge monocultures of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Hives are packed close together in vast arrays, making it easy for disease to spread from hive to hive.

The heavy use of herbicides in the agricultural landscape mean that the only source of pollen and nectar may be the crop to be pollinated. Bees evolved to feed on a wide variety of flowers, and cannot survive on one food alone. Imagine being forced to eat only broccoli—it’s good for you, but if you ate nothing else, your health would suffer.

Add to malnutrition the fact that the pollen the bees are eating is laced with no fewer than 137 different pesticides, many of which are toxic to bees or interfere with their growth, development and learning. And these pesticides are mixed with a range of substances to help them stick to the plants or disperse evenly when sprayed; these chemicals can be as poisonous to bees as the pesticides, and they are virtually unregulated.

Poor nutrition, poisoned food, and crowded conditions make North American bees susceptible to disease and parasite outbreaks. Bee keepers’ response has largely been to treat hives with pesticides to kill the parasites that spread disease, further adding to the chemical load the bees must support. When parasites develop resistance to pesticides (which they do at an alarming rate), the weakened bees are overwhelmed, and the colony dies.

I have long been uncomfortable with the North American management of bees—we squeeze everything we can from the poor animals, pushing them to their physiological limits in poor conditions. It’s no wonder they are in trouble. If we forced any other livestock to live in overcrowded conditions and eat poisoned food that didn’t meet their nutritional needs, the public would be outraged. Now, this unsustainable management has created a crisis, as the animals we depend upon to produce much of our food die in unprecedented numbers.

We need to develop a more gentle approach to bee management—one that respects the needs of these little animals. We need to critically evaluate (and curtail) our use of pesticides, and reconsider our model of vast monocultures in favour of more mixed agriculture. We need to give bees a break from the agricultural landscape so they have opportunities to eat food not laced with pesticides. We need to manage bees less for our own convenience, and more for their health and well-being. We need a new relationship with bees, forged from an understanding of bees’ needs, and aimed at long-term sustainability.