Almost nothing makes me happier in the sunshine hours than watching insects in my garden: honey bees, bumblebees, the cutest little native bees, butterflies, even paper wasps and tiny flies, the ladybirds and beetles, busy amongst the flowers.
We enjoy the colour and the bounty from the garden, but really, I grow the plants for these wee creatures, setting them out little dishes of water, assisting their favourites, like borage, to colonise new ground (sorry, grass).
Amidst my anxiety around plummeting biodiversity and the climate crisis, it’s the one thing that truly soothes me: creating this micro insect oasis, while indulging my weakness for pricking out seedlings from the Links stand at the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market, ‘trying out’ the heirloom plants from Granny McNabb or the local propagated natives from HB Trees.
I’m an unruly, eclectic gardener.
Our Christmas apple tree is jostled by pink flowering hemp (spectacular, I’ve discovered, for up-close insect watching) and a handsome amaranth variant that’s taken to the heat. Cucumbers sprawl through the lavender and sage. The lettuces tucked between the corn and sunflowers and climbing beans have shot up in sprays of tiny flowers. While English roses are now joined by native grasses and pimelea mimosa (a pretty, nationally-critical shrub endemic to Te Mata peak, with clusters of hairy, star-like white flowers – the fact that it’s thriving here in my tiny patch on the Paki Paki flats is such a thrill). Wild mallow flourishes at the borders because I like the lilac flowers and so do the bees, and the roots are good for the soil.
It’s taken me a while to really notice ngaro huruhuru. It takes time to sharpen the eye and look beyond the bigger, brighter, more obvious creatures. For native bees (we have 27 endemic species in NZ) are much, much smaller than the popular honeybee and they’re black (though looking closer, some have silver, iridescent stripes and patterning) so can easily be mistaken for flies or overlooked altogether.
And being overlooked is one of the reasons they’re in such trouble.
They may not produce honey, but they’re crucial pollinators for many of our native plants, and their numbers are in decline. They’re particularly susceptible to agricultural intensification, to pesticides, loss of habitat, changes to natural cycles, and to increasing competition from exotic bees, who get all the attention.
Our European honeybees are amazing creatures but with the lure of the manuka honey trade there are now some 40 billion of them in Aotearoa (for perspective there are 100 billion in the whole of the USA) – too many, says Phil Lester in his new book Healthy Bee, Sick Bee that’s caused a bit of a stir.
Ngaro huruhuru burrow into bare, undisturbed soils in the ground or in clay banks. They’re solitary, gentle (don’t sting, non-aggressive), nesting alongside in communities of bees rather than hives, and need flowers close by to feed their lavae over summer. Whereas honey bees can forage for longer and broadcast food locations to others in the hive.
It’s bee season now (mid-September to March), so look out for our native bees: observe them, learn from them, plant flowers and bushes for them. Create wild insect-happy, pesticide-free spaces in your gardens, where bees can burrow in the ground undisturbed.
Photo: Phil Bendle