Children happy to beehive

By Meg Liptrot

Meg Liptrot finds kids enjoying this birds-and-bees lesson with a difference.

Students from Arahoe School  examine the sunflowers grown at Sustainable Living Centre's community garden in New Lynn. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Students from Arahoe School examine the sunflowers grown at Sustainable Living Centre's community garden in New Lynn. Photo / Meg Liptrot

We sowed the seeds in early October and on the first week of December our sunflowers began flowering. These bright, golden annuals were grown as part of our bee garden at our community garden at the Sustainable Living Centre in New Lynn, with the intention of their making a dramatic welcome to summer, and provide a good food source for the bees - and, ultimately, the birds when the flower-heads dried out.

With high hopes and a dash of pragmatism, given the number of eager birds hopping around the gardens, the sown seeds were almost forgotten.

But to our delight, the seedlings emerged after a couple of weeks.

We chose a few varieties of sunflower, including the impressive Russian Giant, whose sunny face is the size of a dinner plate.

The sunflowers were located beside a structure which offered some protection from prevailing winds. Once the stems reached waist height I fashioned some bamboo and string supports to ensure the plants would stand to attention as they grew.

The clay-loam soil in our garden holds moisture well, and into this we dug sheep pellets, a little dolomite and basalt rock dust before planting.

Apart from a decent application of mulch and occasional sprinkle of eco snail bait, the very fast-growing plants were left to their own devices.

As luck would have it, the flowers looked their best when 100 students from New Lynn's Arahoe School paid a visit.

Class groups were guided around the garden and the teachers were armed with resources for the children who then got busy identifying, then drawing, the flowers the bees were most attracted to.

The objective of our bee-friendly garden, which was designed and planted last year in conjunction with De Winkel, is to be a community resource for education on bee-friendly flowers and a point of interest for schools and other groups to visit.

Arahoe School has taken the issue of declining bee populations seriously and have recently hired a couple of beehives for an out-of the-way spot on the perimeter of their grounds. Teacher Fleur Tuck championed the idea, having taken beekeeping lessons herself.

The hives are maintained by specialist apiarists Beez Thingz. Fleur noted that the teachers had first-aid training and there are epi-pens on hand in the unlikely event someone with a severe allergy is stung. The school will get to harvest its own honey - they can expect an average of 15kg from two hives, so the hives will be productive and educational, with the added bonus of aiding pollination for the neighbourhood's fruiting plants.

Back at the community garden, it is fascinating observing the flowers which attract bees the most. In spring I was concerned we would get no honeybees at all.

While walking around the garden with a group, I mentioned how sad it was that we hadn't seen a single honey bee, despite all the flowers laid out to tempt them.

Then I spotted a lone bee and exclaimed, "Here's one, here's one." How crazy is it that honey bee numbers are so low that we leap for joy at the sight of a bee?

Bumblebees have been a constant presence in the garden from the beginning and are very clearly attracted to blue flowers.

Borage is an all-out winner for both bumble and honey bees and a succession of blue flowers included salvia, phacelia, nemesia, catmint and later rosemary, cardoon and artichoke are all well attended. Stoechas lavender isn't a big attraction, but traditional English lavender is a real winner.

The vintage roses were very popular with the bees in spring, who vied for position on the blousy, open flowers. Purple nemesia flowers are a hit with the hoverflies. The flowers feature a landing pad, much like snapdragons do, on a miniature scale and this suits the hoverflies perfectly.

The daisy and chamomile flowers seemed to be ignored by the bees, but after close observation, tiny wasps were visiting the flowers. These small wasps are beneficial and a welcome addition to an organic garden as they parasitise aphids and whitefly. Hoverfly larvae, too, are voracious predators of aphids.

Italian parsley left to flower is a hit with pretty much all the insects. The sunflowers were very well attended by bumblebees, with several at a time sipping nectar from the centre of the large sun "flower".

The centre of a sunflower consists of many miniature flowers called disc florets.

The petals are technically flowers, too - called ray florets. A seemingly complex arrangement for what at first sight is a very simple flower, which the children from Arahoe School illustrated so beautifully.

- Herald on Sunday

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