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Hello and welcome ... we're Ralph & Karen, and we live in East Albury, New South Wales, Australia.

We're into do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions, appropriate technologies, permaculture and a healthy dose of trial and error. So here you'll find an eclectic mix of tales about stuff happening at our place, people and events that inspire us, and things we learn along the way (also known as mistakes!).

We post updates intermittently, but if you like what you see, please consider subscribing to RSS or email updates, so you'll know when we do.  Read some more about us here or just browse the blog. All photos are ours, unless otherwise attributed. You're welcome to use them, if you include a link to us.

We hope you enjoy your visit!

Friday
Nov202015

Two 'new' blue banded bee species in our area!

For some years I've been admiring, watching and photographing blue banded bees. I learnt early on that it was anticipated we have just one species of blue banded bee in the Albury area - Amegilla Zonamegilla asserta. There are other species of blue banded bee in other parts of Australia and it's quite common for an area to have more than one species. 

This week we've been incredibly fortunate to have renowned native bee enthusiast and researcher, Dr Michael Batley, join us for some of the activities locally to promote the Wild Pollinator Count. In a conversation with Michael I asked about blue banded bees and he agreed that he would expect our area to be home to just A. asserta. I quizzed him a bit about the features that are used to classify the different species, and to what extent the variations in the size, markings and color of the bees I watch might be simply diversity within that species, or whether perhaps there might be other species in our area.

You could put my enthusiasm to record additional species locally down to a wild imagination or my naivety, but it is something I've not been able to let go. Michael noted that just because other species haven't been recorded doesn't mean they aren't here. It got me thinking even more about what I've seen, and raring to check my photos for the features he'd mentioned.

Shortly after our conversation, while standing beside a geranium in the Albury Botanic Gardens, two blue banded bees buzzed by the flowers. Michael noted that the first indeed looked like A. asserta. But the second bee caught all our eyes. He swiftly scooped the bee into his net and transferred it to a plastic bag so we could take a better look. (This method allows insects to be caught, observed and released ... although Michael makes it look a whole lot easier than I suspect it actually is). Sure enough, after examination with a magnifying glass, Michael announced he was confident that the bee was not A. asserta! 

Taking a closer look at the blue banded bee

While we don't yet know which Amegilla species it is for sure, it seems clear there IS more than one species of blue banded bee in our area! What a find! Just to clarify, this isn't a claim of a "brand new" species ... but a sighting of a species not previously recorded in our area. Which is still a very exciting outcome!

...

Fast forward 24 hours and the S2S BioBlitz and Wild Pollinator Count schools' day finds Michael Batley, Dr Manu Saunders and I out at the Wirraminna Environmental Education Centre, getting ready for another day of activities. We'd been talking native bees on the drive out (of course!).

Before we had even unpacked the car we took a quick look at the plants as you enter the grounds. I commented about some of the pollinators we'd seen on the blue bells (Wahlenbergia) and Dianella during another session there earlier in the week.

We saw some blue banded bees on the Dianella and Michael calmly announced that he thought this bee looked to be Amegilla Notomegilla chlorocyanea. Out comes the net again, and the magnifying lens ... Yes!
It would appear that there are at least THREE species of blue banded bee in our area!

Talk about a big week!!

I'm so grateful for the ongoing journey I've found myself on as an amateur naturalist and citizen scientist. I've been fortunate to meet and make connections with so many knowledgeable and generous people along the way - you may recall that Dr Ken Walker also visited our area a couple of years ago (and says he's still trying to recover from gruelling schedule I created, sorry Ken).

I've also learnt heaps through social media and particularly the Bowerbird.org.au website for recording sightings, getting help with identification and seeing the multitude of wonders that others are also contributing.

And more recently, I've gained a friend and mentor in Manu Saunders, initially by being asked to collaborate to create the Wild Pollinator Count, but also I've enjoyed discussing our sightings, having her insights into academic research and going 'spotting' together. I feel obliged to warn you that Manu's twitter feed and blog should come with a disclaimer about how much time you might need to keep up with the fascinating things she writes and shares!  

You never know what you might see - why not make the time to take a look? You too might be surprised how much you can learn from your observations and those of others. There are still a few days left in this round of the Wild Pollinator Count - if you've got ten minutes and one flowering plant nearby, you can join in.

And yes, this has only fuelled my enthusiasm for blue banded bees, so stay tuned for more about them soon.

Sunday
Nov152015

Wild Pollinator Count on again - 15-22 November

The song goes 'From little things big things grow ...' and gosh has our pollinator awareness project done some growing since the previous round.

This will be our third running of the Wild Pollinator Count and this time we've teamed up with the Slopes to Summit (S2S) partnership, which has enabled us to run some extra events locally and to produce new support materials.

We kick off today and would love you to join in!

As for previous counts, the idea is to watch a flowering plant for 10 minutes and report which pollinator insects you see. The goals are to raise awareness about pollinators as well as to record where they are being sighted. You don't need fancy gear nor to be an expert.

And you can participate from anywhere in Australia, anytime between the 15th and 22nd of November.

All the details are on the Wild Pollinator Count website (wildpollinatorcount.com) and to encourage you to click over there here are a few of the extra activities on offer locally: 

  • Macro photography workshop at Burrumbuttock (Sun 15th Nov)
  • Public counts and opportunity to learn about pollinator insects at the Albury Botanic Gardens (during the day, Wed 18th Nov)
  • "It's amazing ... " Guest speaker Michael Batley from the Australian Museum on native bees and citizen science projects (7pm, Wed 18th Nov, Albury)
  • S2S Bioblitz and Wild Pollinator Count schools' day (Thurs 19 Nov)
  • Pollinator photo competition, with $1,000 in prizes up for grabs and it's not only about the "best" pollinator pics!

The full details for these can be found in our events listings.  

Plus we've created a glovebox guide to the common pollinators of our area, which can be accessed online. 

Plus there are also updated our resources for telling the difference between bees, flies and wasps; tips on how to run your own count event with other people; and you can download and print a tally sheet to keep track of what you see.

Whether you make it to any of the special events or not, we'd love you to find 10 mins on a sunny day during the week to add your observations about pollinator insects at your place!

For more information pop over to wildpollinatorcount.com and consider joining our email list to receive updates about the project. 

We're grateful to the Slopes to Summit partnership of the Great Eastern Ranges initiative with funding from the NSW Environmental Trust for their support that has enabled these events and resources.

Friday
Sep112015

New generation emerges at bee hotel

What's more exciting than watching native bees building nests in your backyard bee hotel?
How about witnessing their offspring emerge, an entire year after the nest was completed!

Yes, I was there to see it - and again I had the camera rolling, so you too can share the fun.

This is the same nest that featured in one of my previous videos

Video: Native bee emerging from a bee hotel. Runs 3 mins.

This nest was completed on 15 December 2013 and this bee emerged from it on 18 December 2014. 

Fortunately, I 'just happened' to be nearby as the bee prepared to emerge. I could hear it working inside the hole! It was a bit like hearing a chick 'pipping' or tapping before they hatch from their egg, I guess.

I've edited the footage (thought 3 minutes might be enough for most people). It took about 45 minutes from the time I noticed the first signs of action to the bee leaving the nest.

The emerging bee had to use her mandibles (mouth or jaw if you like) to break up the 'plug' that had protected the nest, before she could leave. 

I think it is a female as there's no sign of the modified forelegs the males of this species have.

Please forgive the shaky camera work ... just bear in mind the macro nature of the shot, and the extreme amateur status of the photographer.

 

Tuesday
Sep012015

Native bees are back - four species sighted in August!

Spring may have officially started today, but my excitment for the new season kicked off several weeks ago. I'm talking, of course, of the native bee season.

The first native bee I saw this season - Trichocolletes sp.

Which bee will be first?

From my kitchen window I watched the first of the striking purple blooms of the Hardenbergia violacea (aka Purple Coral Pea, False Sarsparilla or 'Happy Wanderer') appear in mid-July, knowing that this plant is typically the first place native bees are seen after winter.

On August 11th a casual glance out the window as the kettle boiled revealed an insect zipping and darting around and between the flowers that looked different to the more sedate and predictable patterns of the usual visitors - honey bees. Quick! Grab the camera - it's the first native bee sighting of the season! I raced outside, camera in hand. I nearly skidded as I stopped in front of the flowers. But no, all I could see were honey bees. Oh dear Karen, now you're seeing native bees that aren't there? This really has got out of hand.

But wait, as I replaced the lens cap, there was a short dart between flowers. I leaned closer. There was a native bee! Sure enough, it was a "spring bee" as they are commonly known. One of the Trichocolletes species. I shot a few poor photographs before it headed off (that's one of them, above).

I noted the weather - the flowers were in patchy sunshine and the ambient temperature was 13 degrees. That's quite a way below the expected preferred minimum temperatures suggested for native bees to be out, of about 18 degrees. Interestingly, this sighting is also eight days earlier than my first sighting (of the same species, I think) last year. (You could also question whether I'm getting better at spotting them, or even looking for them, that is influencing this result, but I do tend to be looking from early August ... just in case!). 

And below is a another of these bees (a female?) taken later in the month when I'd had time to calm down, and there were more of these bees about.

Trichocolletes sp.

These bees are a little smaller than honey bees, with similar coloring, which can make them a bit tricky to spot. I tend to look for the darting flight pattern, and if they stop long enough on some flowers, you can notice their distinctive bands, scopa (hairs for collecting pollen) and body shape that all help to distinguish them.

After that, despite the mostly chilly weather, when the temperatures climbed even a little and the sun appeared, so too did these bees. And Trichocolletes weren't the only ones.

 

Tip off followed by next sighting

On the 15th of August, while returning from delivering a workshop in Corowa, I received an excited text from Manu, reporting that she'd seen Hylaeine bees emerging from geranium stems in her backyard.
Gee, I haven't seen any of them yet this year, I thought. (Along with, wow, what are the odds of seeing them emerge if you didn't know they had nested there!?).

I arrived home and took a quick look at the daisies on the front nature strip, and what should I see?

 

Hylaeine bee video (30 seconds) on Vimeo.

Species #2: Amphylaeus Agogenohylaeus obscuriceps

With their less hairy body and legs, and relatively slim stature, I'm sure these bees are frequently assumed to be wasps rather than bees. That was certainly my thought when I first saw them some years ago. Instead of carrying pollen on their bodies they have a crop, and carry it internally instead. They swallow pollen and nectar, then regurgitate it once at the nest. 

 

A somewhat unexpected third species makes an appearance

August 23rd was the next milestone. Again it was a single bee that caught my eye. Again it was the front daisies that it was foraging on. Species number three joined the list.

#3: Lasioglossum Chilalictus lanarium

 

Wattle watching pays off

Our Snowy River wattle (Acacia boormanii) has yet again had a lovely display of blooms right through August. After seeing early bees on it last year, I had kept an eye on it, but had 'only' seen honey bees, flies, bugs and beetles to date. That changed on August 28th when I spied several native bees amongst the flowers.

#4: Lasioglossum Parasphecodes hilactum

These 'red bees', Lasioglossum species, made for four species spotted in August! I'm thrilled.

 

Postscipt and assistance acknowledgement

I added each of these sightings to BowerBird.org.au (follow the links from the photos above to see the respective entries on that website). This was partly so the records might add to the range and distribution records for these species. But also to see if I was on the right track with my identification of these bees (for me, even getting to the right family can be a challenge - anything beyond that is a bonus. Being able to seek advice via BowerBird is invaluable - and I love that it means you don't need to be an expert to contribute your observations). Fortunately for the most part I did ok. And for the one I mucked up, Dr Ken Walker kindly provided a detailed explanation about the ID, which I much appreciate and hope I can put into practice next time.

How did winter finish up (according to the calendar at least) in your neighbourhood? Any nature observations to share? Had a go at looking for native bees at your place yet this season?

Friday
Apr102015

Native cuckoo bee spotting ahead of Wild Pollinator Count

Yet again I'm amazed by what you can see, if only you look. Yes, you guessed it, I've been spotting native bees in our urban area again! It was on a day I thought too cool for native bees. I didn't have my macro lens or camera in tow. But when I glanced and saw this bee, I knew right away what it was - and caught a little of the action on my phone.

The video below features a stunning chequered cuckoo bee, Thyreus caeruleopunctatus, visiting some Purple top flowers (Verbena bonariensis - a weed, and a popular flower for pollinators). 

Autumn cuckoo bee video (43 seconds).

As you might know, female cuckoo bees don't build their own nests. Instead, they tend to hang out around the nests of blue-banded bees, and will sneak into a blue-banded's nest while the female is out and lay an egg into the brood cell. When the blue banded bee returns she seals the cell. Next, the cuckoo bee egg hatches and the larva eats all the nectar or pollen the blue banded bee provisioned the nest with. They then spin a cocoon and pupate. Meanwhile, when the blue-banded bee larva emerges there's nothing left to eat, so it dies.

This parasitic behaviour takes the shine off this stunning bee's looks for some people! 

You're invited to do some pollinator spotting of your own in the coming week. There's another round of the Wild Pollinator Count running from Sunday 12th to Saturday 18th of April. As you may recall from the inaugural event, the idea is to spend 10 minutes watching a flowering plant of your choice, and to record the pollinators you see visiting. You can use the project tally sheet to keep track, and it's fine if you're not sure as to the precise identification (I'm no expert either!). There are also lots of links to useful resources on the project site, along with tips for encouraging pollinators into your garden. 

Find out more by visiting wildpollinatorcount.com

I hope you'll join in, share your observations and help us to raise awareness and knowledge about Aussie pollinators! 

Thursday
Mar262015

Learning is one of the best things about ‘teaching’

Further to the previous posts about my involvement with a class of students that combined English with permaculture (see here and here), I've been reflecting on what I learnt from these students and the classes. Plus it gives me an excuse to share a few more photos!

We received a lot of positive (and heart-warming) feedback about the classes from our students over the time I was involved (and that I'd heard prior to that), which is awesome. The aspect I didn't fully anticipate was how much I learnt from these students and teaching this class. And with funding changes that mean the class is not being offered this year (but maybe it will be again, sometime, or something in a similar form can be developed to 'tick the right boxes' to enable a reincarnation), I found myself reflecting on some of the lessons I learnt.

They say that a way to gauge that you've got your head around something when you can explain it to other people. I think you could add ‘particularly if you can explain it to an ESOL* class!' Developing materials and content for these guys really concentrated my thoughts as to what was important or not, and how to convey the messages in easy-to-understand ways. We used lots of repetition, 'doing' and pictures, in particular. Lou’s experience co-ordinating a primary school garden program, as well as the Australian organic schools materials, were really valuable here, though of course we tweaked things to best suit these adult learners.

The students would often note that time in the garden helped to give them something to do, rather than to ruminate on troubles or previous challenges they'd been through. In fact, many were pretty disappointed when TAFE holidays rolled around and they missed the class. Likewise, the resilience, cheerfulness and attitudes of these folks really gave me a refreshed perspective on my own life.


Feel like you're having a tough week? Think for a second about what some of these people have been through and yet how happy, and grateful they are to be here, to be building a better life, to the future they and their children will enjoy ... and suddenly my 'tough week' seems pretty pathetic.
Likewise consider how difficult it is to function in our society with limited English skills - to rely on others to negotiate the paperwork and requirements of the support systems; to get your licence, and even to eat well when the foods you're accustomed to preparing are either not available or prohibitively expensive. It is so easy to overlook these challenges, and they're just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet when working in the garden they sing, and they laugh and they dig like crazy and just want to plant more and more (especially mustard greens and coriander). And I couldn't help but laugh and smile along - their attitude is infectious!

Image: Picking coridander

I too learnt about other climates and growing conditions, as the students shared with us the climate, seasons and growing practices of Bhutan and Nepal. I improved my appreciation (and recipe collection) for mustard greens - although I don't ever expect to be as excited by them as most of these students are!

And of course, a big bonus was that I got to hang out in another garden, growing food and talking about all things garden-related, on a regular basis! It's also pretty impressive what you can achieve with 8 to 14 people all on the job/s at once; and how time flies as you do it.

Image: steam rises from the hot compost as Hari and Ruth turn it on a cold winters morning.

There are plenty of other examples, but I'm conscious I've already dragged this out more than I'd intended.

To read more about the history of this program, you might like to check out this Organic Gardener magazine article, along with sensational additional photos by local photographer Simon Dallinger of the class, garden and the NEC organic farm.

Image: Organic Gardener magazine, April/May 2014

This and many other programs also demonstrate how food gardens can help to educate and heal - be it for for health (mental and physical), healthy eating, and understanding food systems and connecting us to our environment and ecosystems. That's a lot of winners in my book. I hope we'll see this model of ‘practising English (and all the associated skills and benefits) through gardening’ used again, both locally and perhaps further afield.

A big thank you to TAFE for the opportunity to be involved, to those supported me (particularly Lou Bull and Sue Brunskill) and, to these students - may we all have the chance to learn from you, and to share your enthusiasm for the many privileges and opportunities we have, particularly those we can tend to take for granted.

--

*ESOL - English for Speakers of Other Languages

Wednesday
Mar252015

Practising English and skills in a garden

I’m keen to share a little more about the combined English (or ESOL) and permaculture class of the previous post. It was a very special program and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved with it. The aim was to help students to learn about the value of the food-growing skills they had from past experience, while providing the Australian context. In some areas there are big differences between the students’ previous experience and food growing in Albury (or even Australia more broadly). You can imagine there are some challenges to growing here when you're used to metres of rich top soil, a hot wet season where everything grows like in a jungle with no need to irrigate and you've grown plants that thrive in that environment.

When Lou Bull and I became involved in teaching this class (stepping into a role Bec Chettleburgh had previously) we brought some of our passions and interests to the existing mix. For instance, we'd photograph the class in the garden and they would practice their writing and then reading, to create a garden journal of our activities from the photos.

Image: Pages of one of the class garden journals

We sought to design and work the garden as a market garden - standardising the beds, recording the yields, using crop rotation and practicing skills that help to increase students' employability in the horticulture industry, as well as ways they can grow food in rental accommodation (a challenge in itself).

We incorporated things from previous classes such as looking at beneficial and pest species in the system, organic approaches to soil improvement, pest and disease management and added our own interests too. We made hot composts; looked after the chooks; learnt about safety; even participated in the Wild Pollinator Count.

Image: the mowing and whipper-snippering sessions were popular

In the garden the class grew a mix of plants, particularly those that the students like to eat and that are hard and/or expensive for them to access. For example, mustard greens, daikon radish and coriander were very popular. But we also tried to encourage growing (and eating!) other vegetables that grow well in our region, and/or that might work in their curries and favorite dishes. 

Image: the garden in winter. Comprising approximately 30 rows, 8-10 metres long. If you've got really good eyes you might see the broad beans, coriander and green manures, brassicas, garlic, other leafy greens, peas, daikon radish, asparagus and onions. The trees within and around the patch are stone fruit and figs.

As a class each week we'd harvest any food that was ready, they'd weigh and record it and then carefully divide it up between themselves to take home. We had occasional cooking sessions, and the students prepared a feast that included class-grown food along with organic meat from the TAFE farm and all the campus staff were invited to join in the lunch (with appropriate warnings as to the chilli factor for particular dishes!).

Image: weighing mustard greens to add to the harvest tally

Image: dividing the harvest to share

 

Up next, in the final post of this little series, I'll reflect on what I learnt from being a part of this program.

Tuesday
Mar242015

Graduation celebrations and congratulations

 
  Is this the most colorful graduation class photo you've seen?

 Image: class of 2014 

These students were the proud recipients of their certificate ii in permaculture earlier this month. This class are Bhutanese refugees and the class combined their studies four days a week of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) with a day a week in the garden at the National Environment Centre (NEC) learning about permaculture. Students opted in to join the class, and as such it tended to attract students who had had agriculture or food-growing experiences before coming to Australia. The combined focus meant the program was supported by both an ESOL teacher and permaculture teacher at each class. I've been fortunate to teach into this program for 18 months from the permaculture side (a role I shared with Lou Bull). Ruth Yule from Riverina Institute of TAFE's Albury campus was the ESOL teacher.

So why are even the teachers wearing saris? It began after a conversation with the previous cohort (class of 2013) about graduation. We were discussing what graduation was; who they should invite; and how the evening would proceed. One of the students said ‘For a Bhutanese celebration we would wear saris. Should we wear saris to graduation?’ To which Ruth replied, ‘Yes! It's a celebration, wear a sari.’

Shortly thereafter another question came, ‘Are the teachers going to wear saris?’ Ruth and I looked at each other before she replied ‘The teachers don't own saris’, which I naively thought would be the end of the conversation. We all returned to class work (I thought), though there was quite a bit of excited-sounding Nepali being spoken among the students. A few minutes later, with a big grin on her face, another student said, ‘If we bring some saris, will the teachers wear a sari at graduation?’  Another glance was exchanged between Ruth and I, and a lot of giggling by the students. ‘Yes, ok - if you can help us, the teachers will also wear saris to graduation’.

And so it was that I wore Renuka's wedding sari to graduation last year. Ruth and Lou were also loaned (and assisted with dressing in) saris too. I think the colorful attire was at least a little bemusing to some of the graduates of other courses, and to some of our work colleagues - particularly as I don't think they've ever known me to wear anything other than shirt, jeans and boots at TAFE.

And this year, despite not seeing any of the class in the lead up to graduation, this year’s class had also brought saris for us ... and my 'big effort' to don a skirt for the occasion was replaced by metres of brilliant pink fabric and embroidery. (Fortunately I'd also ditched the work boots for the night).

Teacher attire is obviously an aside. Graduation for this class really is something special. For many of them, it’s their first qualification ever. Some have had little or no previous schooling, so it’s not just the challenge of learning English; it’s the challenge of literacy to enable them to complete a permaculture certificate. I’ll write some more about the nature of the class shortly, but suffice to say that graduation for this class, in particular, truly is a cause for celebration.


Congratulations to all!

Sunday
Mar082015

Puffing and pedalling?

Do you fancy cycling 400 kilometres in a weekend? 

Nope, me neither. [Sorry Dad, I'm pretty sure everyone except you was with me on that!]

Yet the Mt Beauty hospital "Puff ‘n’ Pedal" team are doing exactly that again this year as a fundraiser.

So where do you and I come into it? In support, of course! You can sponsor the riders via their My Cause page. Or, get along to their charity auction in Mt Beauty on Sunday (March 15th) and pick yourself up some of the local goodies on offer.

Here are some details for that event, including the current auction item list, which is still growing (click to view as a PDF): 

 

Oh, and you can even keep up with the team’s adventures via facebook  - https://www.facebook.com/PuffNPedal.

Let’s see - lunch in Mt Beauty and charity auction; online donation; and/or a ‘like’ or ‘follow’ on facebook  - they each sound quite painless compared to all that cycling, to me!

Sunday
Feb152015

Backyard beekeepers' gathering

A chance for backyard beekeepers in the Albury area to get together to chat about all things beekeeping this Wednesday night. 

View the event listing

Note that the session is for those with bees and/or some beekeeping experience. For those contemplating starting out with bees, stay tuned, other opportunities are in the pipeline (and will likely appear on Ecoportal.net.au). 

Monday
Jan192015

Fruit fly fail

Despite considering myself well on top of the fruit fly threat, this season they got one over me!

It's frustrating as I'm well aware of both the damage fruit fly can cause and how to avoid it. Some years ago, when fruit fly was new to our area, there were many of us in tears over the destruction these insects can cause. They are particularly fond of tomatoes, but lots of other soft fruits can be targets, including capsicum, eggplant, pome and stone fruits, citrus, berries, figs and more.

We use exclusion nets and bags to put a barrier between our fruit and the fruit flies at our place. In theory the nets and bags go on as soon as pollination has occurred and they stay there until we've finished harvesting. This gives us a 'set and forget' method to exclude fruit flies without needing to use a chemical, or to remember to reapply or refresh a bait/poison frequently. We've had a 100% success rate for fruit fly free fruit (say that three times fast!) over several years where we've used exclusion nets and bags.

What went wrong?

Unfortunately the weak link in this approach is the human element. I didn't have my eye on the ball early enough in the season. While most of our fruit trees were taken care of (see below), the early apples had well-formed fruit before I got around to bagging them. I couldn't see any sign of damage then, but when I harvested the ones pictured below in the week before Christmas, it was clear I had left my run too late seeking to protect them. By the way, this variety is Vista Bella; a fantastic sweet early apple sourced from Woodbridge Fruit Trees in Tassie. It's on dwarf rootstock and espaliered, so it takes up very little space - a great way to create room for (more) fruit trees in an urban garden.

I knew as I picked them that we were in trouble - but I can't resist a harvest photo, regardless!

The damage the fruit flies cause ...

 ... and a particularly damaged fruit, with the maggots (larvae) living it up inside.

From this little crop, I salvaged about 20% that were free of fruit fly. The rest were solarised in plastic bags to kill all the maggots - if you bury them alive they'll continue their lifecycle in the ground. Sigh!

Exclusion netting

We've netted our mini-orchard (15 fruit trees on dwarf rootstock, espaliered along four wires to about two metres high, in an area of about 5 metres wide by 15 metres long) so that they are within a tent of netting that we can walk into for harvesting and maintenance, and even let the chickens into to graze. The nets are supported by overhead wires, and joined by rolling the edges together, secured with wooden clothes pegs.

Believe it or not, it takes only about 15 minutes to get the nets on in spring even less to take them off again later. The first year we netted individual trees and tried to secure every little gap. However, the tightly wrapped trees were then hard to access to check or harvest and the wires of our espalier frame were tricky to integrate. We've since realised that fruit fly aren't overly determined to find a way through nets. Draping the net over a structure or tree and letting some excess have contact with the ground on all sides is sufficient to keep them out. Sometimes we use bricks or stones to hold the net down (particularly if the chooks are digging around and trying to get under there themselves) but it's by no means crucial. This spot is relatively protected, so even the wind in a storm doesn't usually cause problems for the netting.

For the wicking beds containing susceptible fruit, we also use nets to enclose the whole bed. 

Exclusion bags

We have other fruit trees dotted in the backyard, and for these I use exclusion bags. These fabric bags, or in some cases mesh sleeves, are placed over the developing fruit, instead of netting a whole tree. I find the bags more fiddly to manage than netting a whole tree (or mini orchard!), but they too can deliver a harvest safe from the dreaded fruit flies. They also allow you leave part of the plant uncovered, which is useful if you want to let the pollinators continue to have access to new flowers, while you protect the developing fruit.

Photos: Mesh sleeve (above) and fabric bags (below)

And yes, I will also sometimes take a gamble and hope I can get away without protecting some things - but with my netted beds/trees as the fall-back; I won't risk a whole crop. Cherry and yellow mini pear tomatoes tend to be less attractive to fruit fly. So if they volunteer (self-sow) in a non-netted bed I might let them go and just be vigilant to ensure I remove them if there's any sign of fruit fly strike. (Yes, I know, some people get away with everything, every year, but I'm afraid that's not the case at our place ... and yes, even the cherry tomatoes have taken a hit previously!).

If you're after more information about excluding fruit fly from your home grown produce, you might like to check out the Seed Savers Albury-Wodonga fact sheet on fruit fly, which you can grab here. It includes where to source exclusion products online and locally. Or visit preventfruitfly.com.au, with information for gardeners across Australia. If you're reading this in a fruit fly free area, well lucky you! I hope they don't ever make it to your place!

I'm very disappointed to concede defeat even on this relatively small front in the 'war on fruit fly'. However, both the mini orchard netting and wicking bed nets were on in good time. We're looking to harvest some wonderful apples, pears, quinces and plums (blood plums already; another tree to go) from the mini orchard, and have tomatoes, eggplant, capsicums and more currently being harvested from the (netted!) wicking beds.

As for me, this latest little brush with the pesky critters has provided plenty of motivation to ensure I get ALL my exclusion done early in coming seasons!

Thursday
Dec182014

Mantis munches native bee

Warning: as the title suggests, this tale does not end well for the native bee!

Here's a little photo essay that started with photographing a native bee on Dianella. It turned out I wasn't the only one watching the bee. Without realising it, I took a series of shots that included a mantis slowly manoeuvring itself closer to the native bee. Then wham! The mantis caught the bee and proceeded to eat it ... and I kept clicking.

Below, here's the bee ...

And, unbeknownst to both the bee and I at this stage, here's the mantis
(the bee is on the flower closest to the mantis' head)

Here's the bee again - note all the yellow pollen she's collected

And closer comes the mantis ...

 ... until SWIPE! The mantis has the bee

And proceeds to eat it

 Legs first, including that pollen

 

I know it's a bit gruesome, but it was also astounding to see. For those interested, the bee was Lasioglossum (Chilalictus) lanarium and the mantis Archimantis latistyla (thanks to Ken Walker via Bowerbird for those). You can view higher resolution versions of these images here.

I often spot things in my photos that I didn't see when I took the shot. Spiders underneath flowers are probably the most common examples. However, it's not often that my subject is grabbed and eaten while I'm shooting it.  

Monday
Dec152014

Solar cooking on ABC local radio

Our local ABC radio picked up on my solar cooking adventures. Their cross-media reporter, Allison Jess, dropped by to see it in action. Her interview with me and some accompanying photos are on the Goulburn Murray ABC local website (here or click the image below). 

I also created a little time-lapse video of a late-afternoon "bake" of spicy carrot and walnut slice in the solar cooker. It cooked from about 3pm and fortunately it was ready by about 5pm, or the shadows would have meant I needed to move it elsewhere. Not that that's terribly difficult with the box cooker!

Video: Solar cooking time-lapse (41 seconds).

It is fun to be able cook in the garden, especially when many of the ingredients were grown there too. Take that food miles and fuel miles!

Saturday
Nov152014

Solar cooking resources and photos

Ready to give solar cooking a go? Here are some additional resources that might come in handy for finding out more about buying, constructing and/or cooking with solar cookers.

Online resources

Among the many articles, blogs and sites, I suggest checking out solarcookers.org to find out about different types of solar cookers, plans for making them and the use of solar cookers that is literally saving lives in other countries.

Books

Our solar box cooker was built based primarily on the instructions from the book "The Carbon-Free Home" by Stephen and Rebekah Hren, which is available for loan from Wodonga library.

You can even get solar cookbooks. I have two in my collection - they also have designs for making solar cookers, explanations of the different types of cookers, tips for cooking techniques and yes, recipes!

 

Photos of our box cooker

I've briefly described our solar cooker's construction and use here and here. Below are some photos to try to help illustrate how it was done and how we use it. 

To create an insulated oven (so that the heat is trapped and cooks your food), this design uses two cardboard boxes, one inside the other, with scrunched up newspaper in the 'walls' and 'floor'.

The inside of the boxes and the cardboard reflector are covered with aluminium foil, to help concentrate the sun into the box and assist with even cooking.

The top 'window' is an oven bag, which allows the sun in, but does a surprisingly good job of keeping the heat inside the box.

Some coathanger wire and cardboard stays allow the reflector to be adjusted to the height of the sun. And when not in use, the reflector folds down on the top and helps to protect the oven bag.

Below, the oven and cooking dish are 'pre-heating' - note the oven thermometer in the dish, so we know when it's ready to cook. As you have to take the lid off to access the oven, it's good to move quickly so as to lose as little heat as possible when adding or checking your cooking.

 And the vegetables are roasting!

Tell me you're not tempted to give this a go! It's not hard and great fun ... I'd love to hear from you if you give it a try.

Saturday
Nov152014

'Tis the season for solar cooking

Sick of salads in summer, but unwilling to heat up your kitchen by cooking? Maybe you should try a solar cooker. I cook savoury slices, roast vegetables, cakes and even rice in mine, and the kitchen stays cool.

What is a solar cooker? There are many types; all use the sun’s energy for heat instead of gas, electricity or wood. The heat is concentrated around or onto a cooking vessel. You can buy commercially made models or you can make your own.

I started solar cooking with just a reflector (like a car windscreen protector) and an oven bag. I was astounded when it worked! My current ‘solar cooker’ is more than five years old. It’s made from a couple of cardboard boxes, one inside the other, with newspaper between them to provide insulation. The inside and an adjustable cardboard reflector are covered with foil, to help ‘collect’ the sunlight. At the top, an oven bag provides a window where the sun shines in but the heat is trapped. Fancier versions have glass or Perspex. A black cooking pot or tin can help absorb the heat, but isn’t mandatory.

To cook, I place the oven in the sun to ‘pre-heat’. An oven thermometer placed inside helps me track the temperature. Typically my box cooker will operate at around 110 degrees in summer. This makes it like using a slow cooker. However, dishes that are usually cooked at higher temperatures can also be made; they just take longer. For example, zucchini slice that could cook in 40 mins in a conventional oven might cook for 2-3 hours in the solar box cooker. I adjust the orientation of the oven during cooking to track the sun. It’s no big deal if you forget that you’re cooking either – it’s virtually impossible to burn anything in this type of solar cooker.  

As for other solar cooking accessories, don’t forget you’ll still need your oven mitts (the dish will be over 100 degrees!). Sunglasses also come in handy or else you’ll need to stand between the sun and your oven to avoid the glare.

For more about solar cooking and photos from me see here.

Solar cookers are fun to make, portable, use a free and plentiful ‘fuel’, can be used during total fire bans, and can cook food in hot weather without heating up the kitchen … no wonder I’m hooked! 

---

This article appears in the Living Lightly column of the Border Mail today.
The archive of all Living Lightly articles can be accessed online at ecoportal.net.au/living-lightly.

Wednesday
Nov052014

Green globe award update - a winner!

At last Thursday's NSW Green Globe awards night at Parliament House in Sydney I was a joint winner of the Sustainability Champion award! I'm tickled pink, most grateful and a bit overwhelmed.

Fortunately for me no speeches were required. Who knows what I might have said! I was also relieved to see that the 'official' photo (below) didn't catch what I suspect included my eyes the size of dinner plates and my tongue hanging out of the side of my mouth, cartoon style, as I collected the award. As I shook Chris Riedy's hand all I could come up with was, "This is totally unbelievable!" before thanking him, and no doubt continuing my stunned mullet impersonation. 

Photo: Award presentation with Chris Riedy, Associate Professor, Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS

Photo: With NSW Minister for the Environment, Hon. Rob Stokes.

With more than 300 people attending, the event was a celebration of sustainability efforts across a wide range of categories from around the state. And it was something pretty special to have my efforts as part of our local grassroots collectives awarded alongside companies and organisations of all sizes (and budgets!).

Our MC for the night Reuben Meerman (aka the Surfing Scientist, and presenter for Catalyst and Play School among other claims to fame) entertainingly kept the proceedings on track. While Clarence Slockee (who I've watched on Gardening Australia, and is another multiple-hat-wearing-bloke) gave the best 'welcome to country' I have had the pleasure of experiencing.

After the formalities and photos it was also a treat to share a few beers and stories with some of the other regional winners at a nearby pub. They included folks from The Observatory Hotel in Port Macquarie (who took out the Premier's award for environmental excellence as well as a small business sustainability award), Wagga council (10 year sustainability award), De Bortoli wines (medium to large business award) and Mars Petcare (waste and recycling award - funny to go all that way to run into a project I'd worked just a tiny bit on years ago in a paid role, locally!).

My sincere thanks again to all who helped make this fairytale happen. Particularly to Lizette, who co-ordinated the nomination and wasn't at all perturbed by my protests that I didn't fit the bill. Thanks, too, to Dieuwer Reynders, our local Office of Environment and Heritage community engagement team leader, who encouraged nominations from our groups and whose office helped support me to attend the event (I very nearly didn't go!). Plus a whole host of others who help and inspire me to do what I do, as well as adding their own efforts into the mix.

To all who jump in to collaborate, turn up and participate in the wide range of sustainability events and groups locally, here's a huge 'high five' for us all. 

And to round out the thank yous, I have to acknowledge the Prince Charming of this fairytale, my partner Ralph. I doubt much of this would happen without him. When the wheels fall off because I've taken on too much (again) he not only puts them back on, but sends me out to look for blue-banded bees (my personal 'recalibration' or meditation) while he does it. (The mixed metaphor makes sense to me, apologies if it doesn't translate well for anyone else!) I can't and won't try to list all he does, but I'm sure regular readers of this blog know a bit of it; and more so do all our friends and family. Thanks Ralph, you are the best!

Photo: Ralph and I

And if you're still wondering what all the fuss is about - not just for this award, but even sustainability in general - maybe you'll take the time to click through to Ecoportal.net.au and check out the nearly 60 local sustainability-related groups and 40+ event listings per month across our area, offering fun and inspiring opportunities for your own sustainability journey.

Hope to see you at one (or many) of these events soon! 

Credits: First two photos copyright Cassandra Hannagan, taken for the Office of Environment and Heritage. 

Related: A brief Border Mail article from Saturday's paper announcing the news is here.

Monday
Oct272014

Join our Wild Pollinator Count

Looking for an excuse to spend ten minutes observing the pollinators in your garden or nearby? Of course you are!

I'm sure you know that as well as European honeybees, there are loads of other pollinators. Not just my personal favorites (native bees!) but also all sorts of beetles, flies, butterflies and more. And relatively little is known about them.

Dr Manu Saunders, an ecologist at Charles Sturt Uni, and I have teamed up to create a pollinator observation project. We hope to gather some data about local pollinators as well as trial this approach. We'd love you to get involved.

The concept is simple - on a sunny day, sometime in the week of November 9th to 15th, spend ten minutes watching some flowers. Then share your observations of the pollinators you see on our project website - www.wildpollinatorcount.wordpress.com.

You can do just one ten-minute count, or do a few. You might observe in the same or different spots, or on different flowers, during the week. We've even made a printable tally sheet, to help you keep track. Or you can flex your own record-keeping skills to gather your data (c'mon, I'm not the only one who loves a challenge that involves recording details, surely!?).

There are lots of resources and photos on the website to help you identify the insects you see - and even if you're not sure of the identification, you can record the details you did notice. You can also upload photos, if you wish.

We are focussing the count on Albury/Wodonga, but would love to have contributions from North East Victoria and Southern NSW too, so please pass this on to anyone you think may be interested in participating.

As this is the first time we are running it, we also welcome any positive or negative feedback about the project and/or ideas as to how we might improve on it in future!

For more information please visit the Wild Pollinator Count website. Go on - give it a crack!

Wednesday
Oct222014

NSW Green Globe Awards 

Yikes! I'm thrilled and shocked to be a finalist in the NSW Government's Green Globe Awards this year. 

Here's a story the Border Mail ran about it in Monday's paper.

Image: The Border Mail article, click here to view the story online

The Office of Environment and Heritage note that these awards are about "recognising environmental excellence, leadership and innovation in NSW."

I was nominated in the sustainability champion award category, and the nomination focussed not on my vocational sustainability roles but on my voluntary activities within local groups and projects, like with Ecoportal.net.au, Seed Savers Albury-Wodonga, and yes, even this little blog site.

You can check out all the finalists in the 'sustainability champion' category here (and see all the award categories here). Like me, you may be blown away by the calibre and achievements of the other finalists. I feel well out of my depth! I can only assume that the judges were keen to acknowledge that it's not only large companies and organisations, or even sustainability specialists, who encourage sustainable living. 

I'm indebted to the team of contributors who compiled my nomination, and particularly to Lizette Salmon who co-ordinated it. And of course, to everyone involved in the groups and projects I help out with - it's by no means a solo effort on my part. Locally we have a thriving network of individuals, grassroots groups and organisations all working in a myriad of ways to encourage sustainable living.  I believe we're doing pretty well to support each other, as well as lifting the bar in developing and delivering fun and informative events and projects. And that is something to celebrate.

So cheers to all our sustainability efforts locally, and I hope this publicity will help to spread the word, spur others to get involved or add energy to other local, grassroots projects that encourage sustainable living.

Meanwhile, I'm off to the op-shop to find something to wear to NSW Parliament House next week.

Wednesday
Oct152014

Trying to keep up with spring observations

I try to observe and keep track of lots of things in our garden (and nearby). Not just my plantings and seeds sown, but also harvests, buds, flowers, critters and more. And for the most part I think I do ok. And then along comes spring. And gee does it really up the ante and stretch my observational and record keeping skills. There's just SO MUCH going on! I love being dazzled by it all. I thought I'd share a couple of exciting (for me) observations.

1) I saw the first blue banded bee of the season in our garden. It was not where I expected it (the stand of Dianella outside a neighbour's house is usually the spot), and around three weeks ahead of past sightings, as per the calendar at least. I didn't get any photos but Ralph also saw it - a single blue banded bee on the flowers of a daikon radish last week. 

Below: This little video clip features one of the last of the "bbb"s I saw before winter. Maybe this serves as 'file footage' like they use for tv news? Shortly the blue banded bees will be everywhere, but in the meantime here's a reminder of what to look out for! 

Video: Blue banded bee 

2) The native bees I observed last year roosting on Dianella by the walk and cycle path near here are back! Last Thursday night I saw just one roosting Megachile ferox male. Each night since then there have been two. I'll be out there as many nights as I can to check. They aren't there during the day. More about them here and here. Last year I didn't notice them until November, so with luck I might have a couple of months to observe them this season.  Sound like I've signed up for a(nother) project? You betchya!

3) For at least the third year in a row, there's a blue-tongue lizard (presumably eastern blue-tongue?) hanging out around our gas meter by the front of the house. It was first sighted in the last week of August and I've seen it most days since. It's pretty shy, but it sun bakes most days, making it possible to spot if you approach quietly. No blue-tongues spotted in the backyard as yet. One usually decides the stormwater pipe from the shed is a good spot. We've also seen some take a fancy to chook food in the past (though the blue-tongue that thought it would 'upgrade' to eggs one year met an untimely end when the chooks weren't so keen on that idea and 'took care of it').

4) Of the many, many other 'spring wonders' you can watch, I'll nominate the fruit trees for their intensive progress from the 'bare' branches of late winter, quickly moving to first buds, flowers, leaves and already developing fruits ... better get the nets on them so we can keep the fruit fly and birds at bay! Below is a photo of our new apricot's progress, as an example. Our pears, quince, apples, plums, grapes and even cane and strawberries are all powering along with equal gusto. And the first spears of asparagus didn't even make it to the kitchen - raw and juicy, they were munched the moment they were picked.

What are you watching and getting a 'buzz' from this spring??

Wednesday
Oct082014

Fun at the beekeeping field day, Swanpool

Beekeeping continues to grow in popularity with hobbyists it seems. Yet there's a lot to learn and not many opportunities to gain experience, let alone 'give it a go' before you step into doing it yourself.

Last Sunday, for the third year in a row, the North East Apiarists' Association of Victoria (NEAA) ran a spring field day and workshops for new and prospective beekeepers. It was again very well attended, as you might expect. Participants ranged from those with just an idea they might like to keep bees, through to others who have hives and at least one with several decades of beekeeping experience.

The day consisted of a film screening and then a series of presentations and workshops. There was plenty of opportunity to have hands on time with the multiple hives that were set up along the edges of the tennis court and to discuss the many facets of getting started with backyard bees, and the spring time management of hives. 

Image: nucleus hives set up along the tennis court with one of the groups working in pairs to check out each one, looking for the brood pattern, noting the features of the comb and observing the worker and queen bees and more.

Image: oh, there's the queen (yes easier in a nucleus colony; and indeed when I've cropped and focussed for you ... otherwise there's a distinct similarity to playing with a 'Where's Wally?' book to locate a single bee among tens of thousands!)

The presenters, NEAA members as well as Russell Goodman from the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, did a great job of focussing their discussion on beekeeping at the hobby scale. Sometimes they'd also explain why or how commercial beekeepers might address the same issue or topic. This is also of interest, but can be quite different to the approaches that are available and practical for backyard beekeepers. As always when talking beekeeping, it was reinforced there is no single 'right way', but instead a range of approaches and methods to care for and manage these astounding creatures.

It was interesting to note how the dozen or so other participants I knew at the event each took different things away from the sessions (as presumably, did all the attendees). Sometimes it was information that was new to them and others noted the value of the reinforcement and expansion on methods they'd heard or tried before. Attendees also took the opportunity to ask questions that might have been niggling or come up during their own beekeeping experience.

For sure, there's plenty to learn on the path to being a good beekeeper. There's no magic 'infusion' to gain all that information in one go. In fact, trying to take it all in can be one of the challenges for new beekeepers. For example, my Dad was attending this year for the third time. He said that as a newbie beekeeper the first year, he was pretty much lost after the first 15 minutes, having taken in as much information as he could process. By the second year, and with a little more experience, he said he was able to 'nod along' to perhaps 30 minutes of content plus add some new knowledge, before again struggling to process much more with his brain 'full' for the day. And this year? He said on the day he'd made it to 45 minutes of reinforcing information and picked up new tips from there [and revised that to an hour in hindsight!] … which I think means he'll be getting along to plenty more beekeeping sessions if they come up. But good on him, and all the attendees, for looking to keep learning and to consolidate what they have experienced, too.

Image: simulating the re-queening process and hive splitting ... where is that queen?

A highlight for me was Linton Briggs' presentation on flora for beekeeping. Mr Briggs has decades and decades of experience noting the flowering patterns of local plants, both native and exotic, as well as their roles in nectar and pollen provision for honeybees. He's like a talking ecology encyclopaedia, only more animated, with simple explanations and always coming back to the implications of his observations in terms of the bees.

It made me reflect on what I've learnt in the mere five years since I started trying to observe and note the flowering patterns of plants in my own garden and area (eg here and here). This too began as a tool for beekeeping, and has led to so many other things for me since then! While I am an utter beginner compared to the charming and inspiring Mr Briggs, I agree wholeheartedly with his assertion that observing the patterns of flora over seasons, years and locations is a truly "enriching experience". So too, noted Mr Briggs, is cultivating your connection with the natural world through beekeeping.

I extended my thanks to the presenters and organisers. I appreciate that running an event like this takes considerable time and energy, at a busy time of year for those with their own apiaries and businesses to run. I hope the NEAA will continue to run similar events and that they will attract yet more prospective, new and even experienced hobby beekeepers. The opportunity to learn and share is invaluable.