The berms and the bees and other facts of life

The de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of our most im­por­tant habi­tats



I’ve been think­ing about this let­ter’s open­ing lines for days. So pas­sion­ate am I about my topic I want it to grab you in­stantly. Finally, in­stead of grip­ping lines I of­fer three words: Bom­bus ter­restris threat­ened.

Bom­bus ter­restis is a bum­ble-bee. But, if I’d be­gun my let­ter with a bum­ble-bee sen­tence you would have sighed and thought, ‘Hmm, I think Vir­ginia wrote about those last spring.’ I did, but I know so much more about bum­ble-bees now. I’ve just fin­ished A St­ing in the Tale by Dave Goul­son, a book about the eco­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of bumblebees and how threat­ened they’ve be­come. With­out them some trees and plants would bear lit­tle fruit. In bum­ble-bee-free coun­tries, toma­toes and fruit trees are hand-pol­li­nated with paint­brushes. Sadly, we are con­tribut­ing to the loss of bee habi­tat with our trend to­wards flow­er­less gar­dens, our cur­rent farm­ing prac­tices and the drive to im­pose or­der on na­ture’s un­tidi­ness.

We like tidy road­sides. Un­der­stand­able in the city; but in the coun­try? Do we re­ally need to shear the berms while the hay mower is on the back of the trac­tor? The road­side looks neat and cared for, but the sat­is­fac­tion is all ours. For the birds and bees and lizards, it’s a desert pro­vid­ing nei­ther food nor shel­ter. Note to self: must talk with hus­band Harry be­fore next hay sea­son. He will smile be­cause I am the guilty one who re­quests the road­side be ti­died for Christ­mas.

In the gar­den, how­ever, I plead not guilty. Spring, sum­mer and au­tumn the air is abuzz with worker bees pa­trolling the veg­etable and flower beds. In late au­tumn these work­ers will slowly per­ish as the queens crawl away to hi­ber­nate in soli­tary holes in the ground un­til the fol­low­ing spring. The most im­por­tant thing we gar­den­ers can do is grow early-flow­er­ing plants to pro­vide the emerg­ing queens with pollen and nec­tar so they can be­gin the bum­ble-bee life cy­cle all over again.


I agree about plant­ing plenty of bee-at­tract­ing flow­ers, but not about the berms. Any Auck­lan­der read­ing your let­ter will use it as an op­por­tu­nity to re­visit the im­pas­sioned de­bate about berms. We used to have a berm-cut­ter who mowed all the berms from his seat atop a ma­chine with flash­ing lights and a siren. Oh how my grand­son Tane loved it! Now the berms are left to in­di­vid­ual home­own­ers to main­tain, so in our street we have some peo­ple who do mow and some who don’t. Neigh­bourly re­la­tions have been wrecked by this. The mow­ing home­own­ers are the house-proud ones. From their freshly painted houses they glare over their white picket fences at the non-mow­ers. Tane doesn’t like doggy dos, glass or, dare I say, bees hid­den in un­mown berms but he does his share of berm de­struc­tion, ex­ca­vat­ing around our street tree with his dig­gers. We mow.

Auckland berms are be­ing dug up by Cho­rus to give us high­speed in­ter­net. After they’ve fin­ished lay­ing fi­bre, coun­cil work­ers lay and rake new soil so it’s as pris­tine as a Ja­panese sand gar­den. Then they sprin­kle lawn seeds. Pi­geons ar­rive and peck all the seeds out. Cars park on the beds, goug­ing muddy grooves into the newly lev­elled ground. Old mattresses and chests of draw­ers are flung on the would-be berms. They rot there, wait­ing for some­one, any­one, to solve the dis­posal prob­lem. Cats scratch large holes – the sort that turn your an­kle when you are drag­ging out the over­full wheelie bin late at night. Estate agents in suits ham­mer tim­ber posts into what­ever’s left of the berms to hang their for sale signs.

We should trea­sure and care for our berms. When you travel, you re­alise so many places don’t have them. I ven­tured as far afield as Pon­sonby today where there are whole streets with­out them. And of course we should trea­sure and care for our bees. It’s easy to re­mem­ber: plant flow­ers, and make sure they are sin­gles not dou­bles. Bees don’t like hy­bridised dou­ble blooms.

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