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Birds, Bees And Blossom
Written and illustrated by Zela Charlton - 05/12/01

I never quite understood the old "birds and bees" approach to sex education - after all, the sex angle of flowers, insects and even birds seems far less easy to understand than that of - say - rabbits......

But at this time of year, sex is definitely rampant in the countryside, especially if you do understand the birds and bees thing.

The bees are certainly very busy around my place, enjoying the enticement of not only the few flowers that I have time to tend but also the blossoms of various wild things that I do not have time to defeat. Clover and daisies are very much in favour for their nectar and the orchard sward has a close shave as a preparation for the invasion of a whole army of working bees.

Nocturnal arrivals
The bees are brought in during the night, in carefully sealed up hives and placed at strategic places around the ends of the rows of kiwifruit vines . They are not just dumped anywhere, but considerations have to be made as to the prevailing winds, the local shelter belts and any crops that might tempt the bees away .

Our orchard has the male kiwifruit plants trained to cross over the aisles so that the bees come across them quite frequently on their flights. We have to try to avoid too many distractions for the bees as they are not really very fond of kiwifruit pollen and would happily flit off to an alternative source if it was handy. Growers are very dependent on the skill of the apiarists, who bring along hives full of bees just at the stage when they have need of lots of pollen to feed their brood. If they were more into nectar for honey making they would not be interested in visiting the kiwifruit flowers and we would have a bigger problem with pollination

Smiling faces
So now I have seen the first smile from my vines (the buds split across to reveal a smile-like gap and this is the signal to get in touch with the bee-keeper who is waiting for our signal) I will be ready to make sure that my dogs do not go bounding around as usual.

The bees are more apt to be touchy in the first few days of their visit, after all the upset of travel and unknown surroundings.

The new problem, the verroa mite, has not yet impinged in this area and we are all apprehensive as to what the effect will be. The pollination of the bees is a vital part of the growing of high quality fruit and the mechanical alternatives are too costly and impractical on a small block. Of course, we can always go around ourselves with a small paintbrush and do the job ourselves by hand. I have been known to supplement the bees' work if the weather has been cloudy and made the bees sulk....

We are all more careful around the place at the time the bees are here; there are a lot of them and some hives are more belligerent than others. I have been attacked when I passed too close for their liking, and even when in another paddock it is best to watch out -

I was stung only last week because I had not tucked my trousers into either my boots or my socks and a bee got trapped inside the trouser leg. The unexpectedness made the sting even worse of course.

Kiwifruit flowers are not spectacular, but they are appealing and wandering around the rows when they are blossoming is rewarding to the nose - the air is full of a sweet scent.

Bird life
Birds are not too much of a problem for the kiwifruit, with the exception of a family of rosella parrots who enjoy nipping at the growing tips although there are some odd looks from visitors at the free-range chooks that have decided that they like roosting on the cross-bars of the vines. They do not seem to do much damage and they look very picturesque, even if it is not that efficient.

Other birds appreciate the vines - blackbirds and thrushes have adapted their nesting times so that they begin to build nests - again around the cross-bars - just as the vines start to put out their leaves to hide the baskets that will nurture the next generations of songsters. The shelter belts also provide a selection of building sites that advantage various species.

Altogether on my small patch I have identified about thirty different kinds of birds - though that does count seagulls flying over to look for shelter in stormy weather. Only a few of the thirty something birds nest here, of course, but many do and most are so secretive that I have never seen their nests.

This year I did observe two little fantails collecting spider web from around the house itself and visiting a nearby avocado sapling that had grown from a carelessly thrown stone last year - or maybe the year before. I looked carefully but could not see any nest and so later when a helpful young neighbour came to do some of the heavier chores for me I asked him to chop out the sapling. He soon came to me in distress - he likes birds as much as I do - with a wonderful small fragile cup . It was an unusual shape, made with a tail so that looked at from the side it seemed to be another leaf - it was even about the same size. A masterpiece of weaving, with the strength of the spider web holding the delicate grasses together. There was no sign of eggs or young so we hoped that we had not killed any young but that the parents had changed their minds or else had not started laying..... and since then I have seen the parents darting about as busily as ever, but not letting me see where they are going.

Small adventures like this are a frequent event on a small farm; it makes you into an observant person if nothing else. Otherwise you miss out or get into trouble, as when last year I inadvertently put my hand onto a paper wasps' nest hanging in a feijoa bush......

To read more about Zela's life on a Northland lifestyle block go to her views on lifestyle living, winter on a lifestyle block, and coping with the growth of grass.

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