As a new landcarer, every day is a learning experience for me. Today a group of us got stuck into some weeding down at our local park. It was a chilly morning but we were soon stripping off our layers when the autumn sun broke through the trees. There was so much to see and hear. It was wondrous and fun.
I’ve recently spoken to several park users who have noticed an increase in the number of butterflies and birds since our woodland began its transformation from mowed urban open space to wildlife sanctuary. Today’s high point was when my True Love encountered two native bees that we hadn’t seen before in the park – the blue-banded bee (Amegilla sp.) and the chequered cuckoo bee (Thyreus caeruleopunctatus). Of course, we have blue-banded bees in our own home garden because they love salvia, but I’ve never seen one at the park where thankfully there is no weedy escapee salvia in sight! Awesome. Then to top off the day, the discovery of not one, but two, chequered cuckoo bees was a delightful surprise because neither my TL or I had seen that species before. And they were all together. How cosy! Let’s have a look at them.
The BBBs are solitary bees. The female makes a burrow in soft soil (eg. earth bank) or sometimes soft mortar to lay her eggs (or maybe it is just one egg. I’m not sure). The cuckoo bee parasitises the nest of the BBB. Apparently, it is unusual for the BBBs to roost with cuckoo bees. Anyway, here they are just chilling out together on a a blade of grass as the day warms. I have it on reliable authority (thanks Canberra Nature Mapper experts) that the BBB in this photo is a male.
Bee your kindest self. I must remember that now that I’ve chopped off the less flattering part of this park care story.
What a little cutie. I’m referring to the Australian blue-banded bee. They’re always so welcome in our garden. However, to my horror, I discovered that they have a ferocious bite, especially when it latches on to the delicate skin between your toes. Unlike European bees, our native blue banded bees don’t die after they sting. Technically they don’t sting – they bite, and they can bite multiple times. Honestly, I thought I must have been bitten by a redback spider. It bloody hurt. Not that I have ever been bitten by a redback. I’ve been bitten by a young funnel web spider. Apparently funnel webs are less venomous when they are young, but don’t quote me on that. That bite wasn’t nearly as painful.
Anyway, it must have been horrifying for the little bee as well, finding itself lodged between the toes of some great lump. I ignored the initial discomfort at first but then it started to hurt like hell. I kicked off my sandal to investigate and saw something tumble into the grass. As I hunched down to try to ID it, on the off-chance I might have to call an ambulance, it rose before my eyes from the grass like a chopper from a James Bond movie, buzzing angrily in astonishment. “How dare you!”, it seemed to say. I am pretty deaf but that buzz rang loudly in my ears. No mistaking the message. Poor thing. I was so sorry for it and also very sorry for myself.
It’s official, ladies and gentlemen, I am now a landcarer. I join over 100,000 volunteers across Australia working on landcare projects that are focused on sustainable land management practices and environmental conservation. I’m also a newbie Canberra nature mapper. Better late than never, I guess. Over the last six months, I’ve teamed up with some of my neighbours to form a registered group to look after our community park. It is lucky that we had our own resident ecologist because, with his assistance, we identified something that needed protection. Even our ecologist was surprised.
My family has known for years that areas of the park had some lovely native grass – spear grasses (Austrostipa sp.) and kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) – as well as some native grassland plants, clinging to the edges, or under, trees. We also had an inkling that if the native grasses were allowed to grow rather than be mown, they might out compete some of the weedy, exotic grasses. But who would believe us? Nothing to see here, right?
When the drought broke, the resident ecologist discovered more and more native woodland and grassland plants at the park, and I started to incorporate these plants into my verge garden. My neighbour had also seen many interesting looking plants popping up down the park and she talked to me about starting a park care group. So our little adventure began and soon we were joined on this journey by some other enthusiastic neighbours. We embarked on months of self-initiated environmental assessments, community engagement and government liaison.
It is fair to say that not everyone is on the same page. Myths of snakes in long grass, experience of devastating bushfires and differences in aesthetics, beget many different reactions. I certainly get it because that was me. Of course, I am “passionate” about conservation, as was pointed out to me, but it is knowledge, not passion, that motivates me, ladies and gentlemen. As a team, we did our homework (ie. the biodiversity surveys, etc) and the park woodland did the rest.
And the result? A small patch of the park has now been officially recognised as critically endangered box-gum grassy woodland. This is both horrifying and exciting. It is horrifying because there is so little box-gum grassy woodland left in eastern Australia due to urban development and unsympathetic agricultural practices. It is exciting because we now have the chance to work together – both government and local landcare volunteers – to ensure that this precious ecological community is cared for appropriately. Well, that’s my view anyway. I can’t speak for the government or the broader community.
So we’ve planted a few plants, not many, to shelter the small birds. We have also been weeding, weeding, weeding. It’s been wet so there are many weeds. Weeding has been a learning exercise in itself because we are no experts on what is and isn’t a weed. Thankfully there are a lot of resources, including the resident ecologist, to help us make those distinctions.
I haven’t had time to swan around taking photos. I tried to combine my photography and land care interests at one point but I ended up leaving my camera in the grass when I got distracted by some weeds. Don’t worry, it was still there when I realised my error. I do, however, encourage swanning around with a camera because images (plus the expert narrative that goes along with them) tell a story and the story can lead to understanding, and understanding can lead to action. So I haven’t completely given up.
Because the conservation patch is a grassy woodland, it has delivered, once left unmown, an outpouring of beautiful native grasses the likes of which I have never seen in our park. Let me show you.
Like the rest of Australia, Canberra has a growing multicultural population. Although my ancestors arrived here in 18th century, I include myself in that multicultural group. This multiculturalism extends to our weeds, gardens and pastures. Our nature reserves, and the indigenous species that depend on them, cannot withstand the onslaught of these “threatening processes” unless we do nature differently.
I’ve got lots of ideas about “ecologically sustainable development” and probably not very original ones. Improved community education about environmental conservation needs to reflect where we are as a community, so tailoring nature “education” to Australia’s increasingly multicultural population, through programs and materials in languages other than English, could be really helpful. I would also love to see even more community and government initiatives to re-wild and connect our urban green spaces. Canberrans, the latter is already happening and you can join in now. Contact Landcare or the ACT government to find out how you can get involved. The work is intellectual; it is physical; it is communal and I love it. Don’t wait until you are over 50, like me, before you get your A into G. There’s a job that suits all abilities.
In closing, I offer my best wishes to all who celebrate the coming festive season and to those of you who do not. My hope for the new year is that you too may have access to a resident ecologist and/or team up with likeminded friends to turn your dreams into reality.
Take care, everyone. Don’t be too naughty. Maybe I’ll stop for photos.