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Saturday, December 31, 2011

31) Ant


Last Monday week, at midnight, I came home from my weekly bar job to find that one of the benches in my kitchen had been overrun by ants.  I was surprised: ever since I first moved to Melbourne, when I shared a fairly run-down house with, among others, a woman who had a habit of baking bread then leaving it unattended in the kitchen overnight, I’ve been careful never to leave food out.  The kitchen in that old house in Fitzroy was overrun by House Mice (Mus musculus), and although it wouldn’t be fair lay the blame for the problem entirely on my housemate – who, I hasten to add, was in all other respects an excellent housemate and a lovely person – I don’t think the fact that there was regularly a loaf of bread on which to feed helped discourage the mice at all.  So nowadays, even though after cooking I rarely do the washing-up until a day or two later, I’m always careful to tidy up uneaten food.

Not careful enough, though: the ants last week were obviously attracted by something.  I couldn’t see what it was, but, because I was too tired after working all night to do anything other than stare at them, I observed from their behaviour that their sudden appearance on my kitchen bench was not random: although there were several ants scattered about, the greater number of them were following a set route to and from some mysterious food source.  I couldn’t see what it was – whatever they were attracted to was, literally, invisible to me – but it was obviously there, as the ants arrayed themselves carefully in a circle around a particular part of the bench, like cattle around a waterhole.  Perhaps I’d unknowingly spilled some juice there the previous week at breakfast.

I’d never had ants in my kitchen before, so I was at something of a loss as to how to deal with them.  I’m reluctant to kill animals needlessly at the best of times – the ants weren’t presenting a physical threat to me, and I wasn’t going to eat them, so destroying them en masse seemed a massive overreaction – so, because I was tired and it was late, on that Monday night when I discovered the ants I decided to let them be for the time being and see what the situation was like in the morning.

The situation in the morning was somewhat different, and one might argue somewhat worse.  Monday night obviously represented the ants’ first significant foray out of their nest: there were so many of them, and the workers were well-protected by soldier ants.  The soldier ants were astonishing: while the workers were tiny, the soldiers were enormous: at least three to four times the size of the workers, and with massive block-shaped heads.  Only the ants’ shared colour, a light tan, and the tolerant proximity of the workers and the soldiers to each-other, provided any indication that they were of the same species.  Though the ants – whatever species they may have been – were very small, only a few millimetres long, even at such a diminutive size the soldiers appeared formidable.

On Tuesday morning most of the soldiers had gone.  Most ants will send out a few workers – scouts – from the nest to search for food.  When those ants find something significant, they’ll immediately return straight to the nest, laying down a pheromone trail as they go which will then be followed by a great column of workers, who will break down the food source and carry it back to the nest.  Presumably this first mass expedition can be perilous, which I suppose is why the soldiers were so present on the first night; by Tuesday the ants must, somehow, have concluded that the area was safe for them, and so the soldiers had largely returned to the nest, wherever that may be – beneath my floorboards, behind my cupboard, inside the walls of my house.

The workers were very busy on Tuesday morning, and throughout the rest of the day.  As I passed back and forth through the kitchen – to do the washing-up; to put away shopping; to make a cup of tea; to make myself breakfast and then lunch and then dinner – I’d stop to watch the ants for a few moments, still unsure what to do about them but assuming that the food source on my kitchen bench couldn’t last forever.  Most of the ants were still circled around it, but a few had found similar puddles of whatever it was elsewhere and were feeding at that; more were coursing to and from the nest; frequently an ant stopped to rear itself on its hind legs, as if it had something to say, and would then proceed to scrupulously clean its forelegs and its antennae.

I only had time to observe the ants in passing, however.  The week before Christmas is always busy and I had a lot that I wanted to do before leaving Melbourne for Canberra on Saturday morning.  Although I work in a bar on Monday nights, that particular shift actually represent the least part of the job: I work as a kind of “beer scout” for the bar, and throughout the week I spend a lot of time contacting brewers and distributors and dashing all around town in search of interesting beers.  It sounds like a dream job but it can be surprisingly frantic – in part because I make it so.  Nobody has forced me to take the job so seriously, and most of the work I do I do for free.  I’m in the process of negotiating a rate of pay which is more commensurate to the work I’m doing, but so far that hasn’t eventuated.  Neither I nor the bar’s owners quite know how or how much I should be paid for what I’m doing.  For now I’m doing what I’m doing largely out of love, or pride, or a stubborn need to be thorough.

And because it keeps me busy.  I live alone – although I’ve had a housemate for the last couple of months, she has her own life and her own concerns and I’ve rarely seen her – and I work from home, as I have done for the last seven years, so sometimes I feel a great and pressing need just to get out of the house.  Perhaps for that reason I’ve taken to this new bar job with greater enthusiasm than I might otherwise have done: it takes up more of my time, and so far for less financial reward, than I’d like, but at the start of July this year my main job – what I still think of as my main job – was reduced from full time to only fifteen hours a week, and the search for additional or alternative employment has so far been so fruitless, and so frustrating, that the opportunity to make myself feel busy – to make myself feel constructive – has been something that I’ve seized upon.  Sometimes a whole day goes by, and all I’ve really done has been to think about beer.  Sometimes I wonder where the time goes.

By Wednesday last week, the third day of the infestation, the ants had become more haphazard.  They were splintered across numerous sites on my kitchen bench, with groups feeding at each.  Other ants were wandering around on the bench-top, following their own paths as they searched, presumably, for fresh food sources.  I noticed that a few of the feeding ants had greatly enlarged abdomens.  I was reminded at once of Honeypot Ants such as Camponotus inflatus, found in central Australia, in which the abdomens of some individuals become greatly engorged with a nutritious liquid upon which their fellow ants feed.  The abdomens of the ants I observed, though, were not as large as that: perhaps they were merely budded with a secretion, or an excretion, from excess eating.

It was four days before Christmas, and three days before my father’s birthday, and I still hadn’t finished doing my shopping.  The need to buy presents is perhaps too deeply ingrained in me: I was determined to have something to give each member of my family, even though for the last six months I’ve had to keep a close eye on every dollar I spend.  I’d managed to save myself two or three hundred dollars, at least, by getting a lift in a car with friends from Melbourne to Canberra and back, rather than booking a flight.

Money’s precious right now, more precious than usual.  My bar job has meant the difference between earning slightly less than my weekly rent, and earning slightly more – but it’s a slim difference, and what I earn is still not adequate.  I’ve spent so much time chasing up beers for this job – this job which is still, officially, only for four hours every Monday night – that it’s left me little time to search for other jobs.  Ideally I’d like to work two more days a week, which would bring me up to full-time – official full-time – and leave me, though poorer than I have been in previous years, at least more comfortable.  But it’s summer in Australia, and jobs are few and far between, and I haven’t had the time to commit to the search as much as I should have.

By Thursday last week, the 22nd of December, the ants were almost all gone.  Only a scattered few remained, remnants of the previous workforce, stragglers perhaps.  The numbers were even fewer on Friday, no more than half a dozen – few enough, at any rate, to barely draw my attention, and had I been absent from the house through the week and seen only those ants on Friday I’d have had no inkling at all of the activity that my kitchen bench had hosted over the previous four days.  On Saturday morning that ants were gone, and as I hastily cleaned the kitchen before being picked up by my friends to drive home to Canberra for Christmas I wiped down the bench upon which the ants had been, cleaning up any food that may still have been there – but, perhaps, leaving unseen remnants behind.

I never stopped to watch the ants for more than a few moments.  I always meant to but I never quite got around to it.  I lived with the ants for almost a week, and by the end of that week I’d accommodated them within my life: they’d invaded my main kitchen bench, the bench upon which I prepare all my meals, but while they were present using that bench wasn’t an option so I worked around them.  I prepared my dinner on other, smaller surfaces: I made sandwiches for lunch on the kitchen table, clearing newspapers and other debris out of the way to make space; at breakfast time I balanced bowls precariously on the narrow bench next to the pantry, upon which sit all my canisters of tea and which I almost never use.  All the while the ants pursued their tiny lives on the bench next to the stove, in front of the book holder where I place cookbooks at dinner time, beneath the switch for the kitchen light.  They found their food, and claimed it, and returned to their nest, leaving my life touched in some small way by their presence and yet strangely unaffected.

It’s not been an easy year, and perhaps I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut, but it was soothing, in a way, to share my living space with the ants for a few days.  To know that they were just a passing obstacle, and that for a few days they would be present to enliven my life, was in the end a great pleasure.  At the start of 2011 one of my many hopes was to secure for myself a publishing contract, or even just an agreement to publish one of the two manuscripts I’d completed at the end of 2010; but due to a confluence of circumstances old and new 2011 proved to be a horrendous year in Australian publishing, and other setbacks throughout the year gradually sapped the enthusiasm from me until I started to view 2011 as a year simply to be endured, to be lived through until I graduated, at the end, into the fresh hopes of a new year.

Amidst all this disappointment, in the middle of winter I started this blog.  I’d never previously thought to do such a thing, not on such a scale or with such regularity; indeed I’d always rather disdained bloggers for their navel-gazing.  I don’t pretend that this blog is anything different – but it’s kept me writing, and it’s kept me engaged with the world, and it’s kept me awake to the infinite wonders and joys that continue daily in this world regardless of our indifference, our self-absorption in our own troubles and concerns.  No year is wholly good; no year is wholly bad.  Some years are more one than the other – but even the most repetitive and wearisome of years can have its joys.  At the end of 2011, a difficult year, I find myself, unaccountably, unexpectedly, and with some delight, grateful for a brief infestation of ants.

Image sourced from

Thursday, December 22, 2011

30) Christmas Beetle

Anoplognathus spp.

In two day’s time I’ll be getting in a car with several friends and together we’ll drive from Melbourne to Canberra for Christmas.  We won’t be having Christmas together: I’ll be going to my family and my friends will be going to theirs.  One of the reasons I moved to Melbourne in the middle of 2004 was because so many of my friends from Canberra had moved down here before me, and inevitably, like the Bogong Moths (Agrotis infusa) which sweep in their millions through Canberra every spring, come Christmas we all head back to the town that raised us.

Christmas is a hectic time for everybody but in Australia all that frantic to-ing and fro-ing, planning and cooking, travelling and shopping, is softened by the drowsy rhythms of summer.  Christmas in Australia is as much about the boozy, overfed afternoon sleep on Christmas Day as it is about turkey and plum pudding and Christmas crackers; it’s as much about leftovers for lunch in front of the TV for the first day of the Boxing Day cricket test match as it is about giving.

Though Australians have held fast to the traditions of our nation’s British ancestors, we’ve found a way to make them our own.  Many of the traditions and expectations of Christmastime in Australia are as much to do with the season, summer, as with the celebration.  There’s a correctness to having summer at the end of the calendar year which makes me wonder how anybody could tolerate anything different.  The end of a year is an introspective period at the best of times; heaping cold and dark and short days upon that mood seems cruel.  Although winter is actually my favourite time of year, I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that in Australia it falls in the middle of the year, at a time when the season can feel like an adventure in a year still only half-lived, rather than an ordeal at the end of a year now exhausted.

Christmastime in Australia is a time of bare concrete glaring in the sun like new-fallen snow; of cicadas singing the heat into the air; of bark and leaves piling up beneath eucalypts in desiccated brown mounds like middens.  It’s a time, too, of Christmas Beetles.

Christmas Beetles are named for the time of year at which they emerge, but when I was a child I believed that they were also named for the iridescent metallic colours that glitter like tinsel across their carapace.  They’re reasonably large beetles, with the species prevalent in Canberra being about the size of a man’s thumbnail.  That species’ base colour is orangey-brown, but over that is a sheen of green which flashes in the summer sun.  The animals are cumbersome in the way of all beetles, stumbling over leaf-litter and opening their wings to launch themselves in rattling, ponderous flight.  They’re one of the few insects which can claim to be fondly regarded by humans.

If they’re found in Melbourne, I haven’t recognised them: there are thirty-four species of Christmas Beetle, all in the genus Anoplognathus, but the only one I’m familiar with is the one that’s common in Canberra.  I can’t recall having seen that particular species since I moved to Melbourne.  Melbourne has nothing like the large and disjointed network of areas of remnant bushland that collectively make up the Canberra Nature Park and which provide habitat and refuge for any number of native animals, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I haven’t noticed any Christmas Beetles here; but what is surprising is that I’ve gone back to Canberra nearly every Christmas since I moved to Melbourne, and I can’t recall having seen a great many Christmas Beetles on any of those occasions, either.

Perhaps they’d all died off by the time I got to Canberra, having emerged from the earth at the start of the summer and completed their brief lives before I had a chance to see them – though from what I’ve read the adult beetles live relatively long lives, being prevalent throughout summer, so it seems unlikely.  Perhaps there simply haven’t been any good seasons for them in the last seven years: I can still recall a summer about ten years ago when Canberra was deafened by an extraordinarily large number of Black Prince Cicadas (Psaltoda plaga), yet in the years before and after that there were hardly any.

Perhaps, too, my memory is simply incorrect.  I’ve written before on this blog about the unreliability of memory, and childhood memories are probably more unreliable than most.  I recall from my childhood great numbers of Christmas Beetles every year, Christmas Beetles everywhere: getting underfoot, dying on hot driveways, crawling under doors.  But were they real?  Did these things really happen?  I remember also summer nights so hot I had to lie beneath a damp sheet just to get to sleep; yet from the time I was old enough to put a specific age to my memories to the time I left Canberra for Melbourne, there were no such nights.  Perhaps the sensations of childhood – both as experienced at the time, and as recalled years later – are just more intense than those of adulthood.

When I was a child I could barely get to sleep on Christmas Eve, so excited was I about the day to come.  Such excitement – derived exclusively from the promise of presents on Christmas Day – can’t last, or at any rate it would be deeply concerning if it did last.  Although it’s still a few days away, Christmas this year hasn’t gone to plan, and in terms of gift-giving it’s going to be a more restrained affair than usual.  If that had happened when I was a child I would have been bitterly disappointed.  But I’m not a child any more, and I’ll get to spend a day in a road-trip with my friends, and I’ll get to spend a week with my family, and I’ll get to play with the family dog – and before returning to Melbourne for New Year’s Eve I’ll have a week to try to spot a Christmas Beetle.  If I find one I’ll pick it up, and place it on my hand the way I did when I was a child, and feel the strange and slightly frightening sensation of its claws anchoring into my flesh as it crawls across my hand, and then I’ll place the beetle back on the ground to continue towards its lumbering, unknowable purpose, while beneath us the larvae that will become next Christmas’s beetles feed, and grow, and wait for the sun to call them out of the earth.
Image sourced from

Monday, December 19, 2011

29) Canada Goose

Branta canadensis

Last Wednesday week I caused a waitress at a local cafĂ© to become mildly upset when I complimented her on the goose pendant she was wearing around her neck.  Goose!” she said, aghast.  “It’s a swan!  It wasn’t, though: the bird depicted on it had a black head with a large white patch on the side of its face, and I recognised it instantly.  It was a Canada Goose.

I’ve never seen a Canada Goose in its native habitat, but I’ve seen them just about every time I’ve gone to London – something which I’ve been doing every few years since I was a small child.  For a long time I thought they were native to the UK: I don’t know nearly as much about European birds as I do about Australian birds, and even in Australia I know next to nothing about waterfowl, and more tellingly until I was in my twenties the idea of animals in general being introduced to the UK had simply never occurred to me.  Granted, I knew that the Grey Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) in which I take great delight every time I’m in the UK were introduced from North America, and have had a hugely detrimental impact on the native and much smaller Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris) which are still common elsewhere in Europe – but I imagined that to be a one-off.  So many animals in Australia have been introduced from the UK, and so severe has been their impact on the Australian environment and native wildlife, that the idea of the UK having been subject to similar unnatural intrusions was – still, instinctively, is – utterly alien to me.  The UK is the source of problem animals, it doesn’t receive them.

Not that the Canada Goose is a great threat to Britain’s wildlife, necessarily.  The website of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds describes them as a “nuisance”, singling out specifically their habit of forming large and noisy flocks in public parks.  Bothersome, certainly, but hardly a scourge.  Nonetheless, the knowledge that they’re not native to the UK makes me value them less whenever I see them, as if by not being endemic the birds are somehow less authentic.

When I was in high school a friend asked me an interesting question.  I was railing against Indian Mynahs (Acridotheres tristis), a bird introduced to Australia some decades ago and probably the most reviled bird in this country, and my friend asked me how I would have had the Mynahs treated if, by some environmental catastrophe, Australia became the last place on earth in which they lived.  Would I kill them all, to save the native birds to which they provide competition?  Would I protect them?  It’s a vexing question and I can’t remember how I answered: most likely I didn’t answer at all.  I think that I still don’t know how to answer the question.

We place value on animals, and that value is far from evenly weighted.  This is something that we all know, and we all acknowledge it even if we sometimes feel guilty about it: it’s long been a truism that it’s easier to convince people of the necessity of protecting a threatened species of bird or mammal, than a threatened species of spider or insect.  Some animals are simply more aesthetically pleasing to humans, or at least to the great majority of humans, and consequently those animals are the animals which we most highly prize.

Even among a group of animals such as the birds, though, not all are equally adored.  Why is a swan so much more worthy of our adoration than a goose?  Why would somebody be dismayed to be told that the pendant she’s wearing, which she thought depicted a swan, actually is representative of a goose?

I think the names that we apply to animals, the particular conjunction of sounds which together signify a given animal and conjure its form in our mind’s eye, can have an almost insurmountable effect on how we perceive that animal.  Of course there are some words – squirrelly, for instance; dogged – which derive directly from certain animals and which describe not just a specific mode of being which we characteristically ascribe to that animal, but also echo meaning from the abstract of the word back onto the original animal in a kind of semantic feedback loop.  There are other animals, though, a great many of them, whose name may be shorn of all, or almost all, specific meaning, but which nonetheless evoke by their name, the play of the sound of that name in our mind, a particular emotional and intellectual response.

I’ll give an example.  When I was travelling through the Finnish arctic in September 2003 I was sitting on a bus, watching the passing landscape.  Sitting on a bus – or in a car – is an unavoidable part of travelling through the Finnish arctic, especially if you wish to travel further than the town of Rovaniemi which sits about eight kilometres below the Arctic Circle and which boast the region’s one significant airport.  After a week in a national park two-hundred kilometres north of the Arctic Circle I was catching the bus back south, and I was sitting on the front of the bus, because I’d realised by then that doing so afforded the best chance of seeing any wildlife: the Finnish arctic is composed of thousands of square kilometres of birch forest, and seeing anything in it from the road is virtually impossible, so the only chance to see wildlife in that environment is when an animal wanders out of the forest, onto the road.

This happens fairly often: the arctic region from Russia through Finland and Sweden to Norway is home to the Sami, northern Europe’s indigenous people.  The Sami have always been Reindeer herders, and this is a tradition which continues to this day – albeit in a strikingly modernised, mechanised way.  Consequently, the forests of arctic Europe are full of Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), each one semi-domesticated and somebody’s property.  Periodically the Reindeer are rounded up into great corrals for the slaughter, but for the most part they roam free – and they’re prone to wander without warning onto roads.

Being a foreigner, when I was travelling through northern Finland I was not inured to the charms of the Reindeer.  I still viewed them as a delight rather than a nuisance.  So when I got on the bus I sat at the front so that I could see any Reindeer on or near the road; and I did see Reindeer, many of them – but I also saw something much more unusual, and exciting, and wild: I saw a Moose (Alces alces).

It was only a glimpse: the animal loped out of the forest into the path of the bus and then immediately turned and retreated back to the safety of the trees.  But it was enough: it was a genuine sighting of an animal many people who travel to the arctic never get to see.  Days later, still excited, I recounted the story to my parents, and my father gently corrected me: in America the animal is called a Moose, but in Europe it’s called an Elk.

This is true, if confusing: there’s a different – though related – animal, Cervus canadensis, in North America which is called an Elk, but the Elk of Europe is the Moose of the Americas.  Nonetheless, I can’t bring myself to think of Alces alces as an Elk: to me the word elk suggests great elegance, and grace, and even a certain sophistication.  Moose suggests something closer to how the animal in question actually appears: something gangly, and a little awkward, and generally comical.  Moose is such a perfectly apt name for the animal that I wonder how anybody could call it anything else.  Of course it’s unfair on the animal, whose peculiar appearance is a result of effective adaptation to its environment, to ascribe it with such unflattering characteristics – but fairness is besides the point here.  I’m talking about mere impressions, and the impression given by the Moose is inherently moose-like.

With its very similar name I think the goose suffers from the same perception.  A swan is regal, and stylish, and glamorous.  A goose is a goose.  The fact that in appearance the animals are more alike than they are dissimilar is unimportant: when we think consciously we think in words, and the word goose does not speak of an animal of great dignity.  A swan is scarcely any less elegant than a goose, and if it appears to glide effortlessly through the water compared to the goose’s more robustly functional paddling then on land it waddles in a most ungainly fashion while the goose stands bold and upright and acquits itself with great purpose.

Perhaps nobody wants to be associated with such an unglamorous and practical animal, though: would anybody go to a ballet called Goose Lake?  It seems doubtful.  We may not know animals as well as we think we do, but we know what we think of them and I think most of us would rather align ourselves with the swans than with the geese.  Still, at least one person, somewhere, decided to decorate a pendant with the image of a Canada Goose; perhaps they didn’t know what the animal was, but just liked the look of it.  However, I think I’m going to choose to believe that they consciously threw their lot in with swan’s less flattered cousin.  After all, the Melbourne singer-songwriter Paddy Mann, aka Grand Salvo, didn’t write a song called “Brave Like a Swan”.
Image sourced from

Thursday, December 8, 2011

28) European Honey Bee

Apis mellifera

When I was at university I knew a girl who wore a vial of honey on a chain around her neck.  She wore it so that if she ever came across a bee which was starving and close to death she could feed the bee and nurse it back to health and vigour.

If this recollection makes the girl in question sound irredeemably twee then I hasten to add that when she wasn’t rescuing bees she was stridently opinionated, resolutely unafraid to voice those opinions, powerfully intelligent and with a deep and questing intellect, and also possessed of a robust sense of humour.  She also adored poetry, and perhaps her fondness for bee rescue sprang from the same emotional well.

From her I gained two things: the presidency of the Australian National University Poetry Club, and a predilection for rescuing bees myself.  I don’t wear a vial of honey around my neck, but whenever I come across a bee which is struggling to cling to life my soft-heartedness takes over and, provided I’m close to home, I rush to get a jar of honey and a spoon.

Admittedly, it’s not often that I come across a bee in such a state, but when I do it’s remarkably easy to identify: a bee in need of feeding is slow and lethargic.  It won’t fly, regardless of provocation, and its attempts to walk across the ground will be clumsy and stumbling.  It will look weary, and yet filled with that particular determination to keep moving, keep functioning, which is so distinctive of stricken or wounded insects.  When such a bee smells honey, its reaction is immediate.

If you’ve never seen a bee’s tongue, it’s worth feeding a bee just to get the chance.  The tongue is long and pointed and slides out of the bee’s mouth and towards a proffered dab of honey with such grace that it can be easy to forget that the creature is close to death.  The tongue is also pink, or dark red, and to the naked eye it looks remarkably human – a disconcerting, yet charming, sight on such an otherwise alien animal.  When a bee finds honey it will eagerly lap it up, the tongue darting in and out to pull the honey into the animal’s mouth.

Honey isn’t just honey, though.  My pantry usually contains creamed honey because I find it easier to manage, less messy than what I call “runny honey” – but the one time I tried feeding such honey to a bee, the result was disastrous.  The honey was far too thick for the bee, and the poor creature got its tongue stuck in the blob I placed before it.  It tried with what strength it had left to pull its tongue from the honey, and in its efforts it got a leg also stuck in the blob, and then another leg.  When, watching the creature’s efforts and full of remorse, I intervened to try to somehow brush the honey away from the bee, I of course only made matters worse; when dealing with such a small-scale disaster the clumsiness of human movements is magnified tenfold.  Eventually the bee was completely consumed, trapped in the honey just as ancient insects were once trapped in amber.

I’ve learned my lesson since then, and these days I keep a jar of runny honey in the pantry in addition to my preferred creamed honey – not just to rescue bees, mind, but also – mainly – because it’s easier to cook with.  It’s not often that I encounter a weakened bee; it’s even less often that I find such a bee close enough to my house, and my pantry, for me to attempt a rescue.  Since I graduated from university in 2002 the number of such bees I’ve come across can be counted on one hand.  The most recent was just a few months ago:  it was a Saturday morning, overcast and cool but not cold, and I discovered the bee struggling across the asphalt of a driveway a few doors down from my house.  I went back home, got the honey, and drizzled some with a spoon on the ground just in front of the bee.  As they always do, the bee investigated the honey briefly and excitedly with its antennae before proceeding to lick the honey up with that long, remarkable tongue.  I had a train to catch so I didn’t wait to see if my efforts successfully recuperated the bee but when I returned several hours later the bee was gone, so I took that as a sign of success.

It wasn’t quite as straight-forward as that, though.  I realise that rescuing bees is not a normal thing to do, and I realise it to my detriment: because when I rescued that bee a few months ago it wasn’t as immediate and spontaneous and unthinking as I made it sound in the above paragraph.  Quite the opposite: a great part of me was deeply reluctant to go to the bee’s aid, and though part of me also recognised both instinctively and consciously that saving the life of the bee was the right thing to do, I had to struggle with myself for a few minutes – only a few minutes, but an agonising few minutes – after I got home before I got the honey and returned with it to the bee.

I had a train to catch.  I do volunteer work every Saturday morning and I catch a train to Footscray, in Melbourne’s inner west, at the same time every week to get there.  It’s my only commute of the week, and if I miss the train I risk letting down people who are relying on me.  I like to sleep in as much as I can so it’s always a bit of a rush to get to the train, and it was sorely tempting to use that as an excuse to rationalise my way out of helping the bee – but the train station is only a couple of minutes from my house, and I had about ten minutes between finding the bee and the time when the train was due to depart.  The bee was only ten metres from my house.  There was ample time to rescue it.  Even with my dithering, trying to simultaneously persuade myself to rescue the bee and not to rescue the bee, I still had at least five minutes in which to feed the insect.

So though a part of me would very much have liked it to be otherwise, the deadline of having to catch the train played no part in my reluctance to rescue the bee.  Rather, what gave me pause was a familiar fear, one that always paralyses human action: the fear of social ostracism.

There’s nothing quite so unsettlingly judgemental as the front window of a house.  It’s all too easy to imagine people watching the world from the dark privacy of their front rooms, silently taking in and lending private criticisms to the behaviour of neighbours and passers-by – if only because it’s something we’ve probably all done ourselves.  Certainly I know I have, on numerous occasions, watched, or eavesdropped upon, some argument or loud discussion outside my house, and formed my own ruthlessly biased opinions about my fellow human beings.  So when I was debating with myself whether to rescue the bee or not, I was acutely aware of what I imagined to be the silent, scornful observations of my neighbours.  I’d lived in the neighbourhood for about a year at that stage, and though a year is ample time to become settled in a house it’s not really enough time to start feeling like a true resident of the community around that house.

Still, I’m glad to say that my conscience got the better of me, and I went to the bee’s aid.  Yet, amid all this self-reflection and (eventual) self-congratulation, there comes a troubling thought: perhaps it would have been better if I’d let the bee die.  We tend to think of the European Honey Bee as just “the bee” – but of course it’s just one species among many.  People living in the Northern Hemisphere will be familiar with the Bumblebee (Bombus spp.) – but Honey Bees and Bumblebees are barely even a glimmer of the total diversity of bee species: worldwide there are more than sixteen thousand species of bees, and although the European Honey Bee has a particular and long-held place in human culture, when it comes to the broader environment it’s interchangeable with any number of species.

Bees are found worldwide, and Australia has around 1500 native species.  In recent years there’s been growing concern about the impact of the introduced European Honey Bees on those native species: it’s been posited that native bees are outcompeted for food and for nesting places by the more aggressive introduced animal. Although honey bees are not exactly a domesticated animal, they can still go feral: having been introduced to Australia, and to many other parts of the world, solely to be tended by humans, inevitably European Honey Bees have struck out on their own, establishing hives in the wild which remain unmolested by people.  And of course, even non-feral honey bees still venture out into the wild to find flowers.

However, the evidence for the adverse impact in Australia of European Honey Bees – feral and managed alike – turns out to be fairly equivocal.  A report on the website of the Australian Federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities states, while noting that there have been few adequate studies so far conducted, that feral honey bees occupy only a very small proportion of available tree hollows.  Influxes of honey bees into an area may have an impact on the population of native bees, but it’s hard to tell from the data so far available.  The impact of honey bees on the feeding behaviour of honeyeaters – which, like bees, feed on the nectar of flowers – is sometimes notable and sometimes is not.  European Honey Bees may be a problem in Australia, but perhaps in our day-to-day life it’s best to assume, at least for now, that they’re not.

For what it’s worth, the bee that I rescued a few months ago was almost certainly not a feral bee.  Late last year, shortly after I moved into the street where I live, I was chatting with my next-door neighbour, and I happened to mention that I’d seen a large number of bees in the alley off the street the day before: a hive, swarming as they do when they’re relocating.  My neighbour assured me that it was nothing to worry about: one of the residents of the street, only a few doors down from my house, keeps bees.  In winter this year I bought a jar of honey from the shop around the corner from my street.  The honey was sold under the shop’s own brand, and it’s tempting to imagine that it was locally produced – perhaps even by bees which are kin to the one I rescued.  It’s a fanciful thought, true, but a pleasant one to have in mind.

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