Imagine you’re far from home. On a mission to complete one of the world’s most important jobs. You’re hungry, thirsty and tired. You can’t go on much further. You need somewhere to rest and recuperate.
You’re a native Australian bee.
You belong to one of 1,700 native bee species. And, you’re an ‘expert’ pollinator.
It’s pretty difficult to do your job in the city where many of the trees and shrubs you use have disappeared.
But there is hope. Sheridan Powell reports.
The Sydney area is home to hundreds of varieties of native bees, including the hive-building native stingless, and the solitary blue-banded and teddy bear bees.
All of them, and many of their insect cousins, cannot fly long distances and need regular access to year-round flowering plants. Due to a lack of food and places to nest or rest, we are now seeing dramatic drops in the number and variety of insect and birdlife (who rely on insects as a key part of their diet) both locally and globally.
Without them, many of our crops and ecosystems will die.
It’s why researchers have teamed up with local communities to establish a networked “highway” of bed and breakfasts for birds, butterflies, bees, and biodiversity (B&Bs for short). These bespoke gardens and insect ‘hotels’ provide important rest points for our pollinators, helping to improve their health, and the health of our planet too.
“We need to create these corridors across Sydney to improve the situation. We're at a tipping point, and need to move quickly to ensure Sydney is a sanctuary for both its people and pollinators,” says Judy Friedlander, a PhD student in the Institute for Sustainable Futures.
Inspired by bee highways in Oslo, Belfast and Vancouver, Judy has been working with a team of dedicated volunteers, as part of social and environmental not-for-profit FoodFaith: Planting Seeds. They’re working to establish new gardens across Sydney filled with a range of plants pollinators love, such as tea tree, flowering gum and lavender.
The B&Bs will mean that there is always something in flower and full of pollen for a bee to take back to their hive. The social native stingless bees will be provided with specially built hives and for the solitary insects that prefer to nest alone, there might be an insect hotel, with their favourite nesting material such as reeds, bamboo or soft clay ready and waiting for them.
Judy explains, “Insects are the “the building blocks” of entire ecosystems. It’s estimated that one in every three bites of our food connects to pollinators, which means losing these creatures would have a significant impact on our day-to-day lives.”
A recent journal article published in Biological Conservation reported a study showing an astounding 75 per cent reduction in insect biomass in 27 years. Judy notes how infrequently she now sees the insects she remembers as a child, “I used to see an incredible array of beautiful insects, lady beetles, cicadas, and beautiful butterflies.”
The number one driver of this habitat loss is intensive agriculture and urbanisation, and if it continues at the current rate of decline, we could lose all insect life on the planet in 40 years. This means losing the plants that insects need to reproduce, the birds and mammals that eat them, and a tremendous amount of the planet’s biodiversity.
By developing community gardens, FoodFaith: Planting Seeds aims to provide food sources and habitats for our city’s insects and birds – but Judy’s objective is broader than that. These gardens are designed to bring people together, by getting communities more involved in nature and giving them actionable ways to address what Judy identifies as “a dire situation”.
The gardens are set-up in public, shared spaces, and depend on volunteers to tend them. By locating the gardens at a range of schools, faith and cultural centres and community housing areas, they create places of communal gathering to host regular meet-ups to share ‘seeds, honey and tips’.
“Sustainability has a number of meanings,” says Judy, “and we want to talk about [both] environmental and social.” By running events targeted at bringing people of diverse cultures, faiths and backgrounds together, FoodFaith will help the people of Sydney “celebrate our differences, our commonalities and our common home.”
The project is off to a strong start, with eight B&B gardens across Sydney already completed or in progress. Locations include the original interfaith garden in Lane Cove, a garden collaboration with Mt Druitt Ethnic Communities Agency that engages migrants, refugees and emerging communities in the area, and six gardens supported by a Federal government grant in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
A current crowd-funding campaign aims to raise funds to build at least twelve more, as well as pay for horticulture, permaculture and native bee experts to maximise the gardens’ effectiveness. Judy and the team hope to target specific Sydney locations where pollinators are in serious decline, as well as collaborate with academic research and citizen science.
If you’d like to help create Sydney’s super-highway for pollinators, you can donate, volunteer, collaborate, or suggest a potential location by emailing the FoodFaith: Planting Seeds team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Judy Friedlander is a postgraduate researcher at UTS’s Institute for Sustainable Futures.