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The Bee Tree of Parramatta

Earlier this year, I drove up to the local charity  store to get rid of some stuff I’d had in storage – but when arriving at the charity depot, I found that there was a big truck in the driveway blocking me from getting in.

So I circled around the block a few times — but each time I returned, the truck was still there; so I decided to park down near the Parramatta River to give the truck a chance to unload.

This is a special area for colonial and indigenous Australian history, as well as natural history, that I would often explore, as I had become involved in a campaign to protect it from planned residential development by the NSW State Government.

I didn’t really know this part very well, and it was very quiet and a bit spooky. As I was walking along a particular path, I was surprised to notice many bees hovering around the base of a large tree.

I stopped to have a look; as I got closer, I could see that the bees were coming in and out of a large hole at the base of the tree. But not just that: I could smell honey, just from where I was standing.

I was impressed, but I didn’t hang around. I went back to the car, and tried again with my stuff. This time, the truck was gone, but it was still no good — they had put their sign up saying they had reached their quota for the day. Illustration of a bee in flight

However, the bee part of the story didn’t end there:  a few weeks later, my Aunty came to stay with us from Scotland. Since I had last seen her – over twenty years ago – she had become a certified expert beekeeper, giving talks and training, and helping to relocate dislodged colonies of bees in the rural part of Scotland where she lives.

Of course, I suddenly remembered my discovery near the Parramatta River, telling her about it; and the next day, we went out to have a look.

She was very excited to see it. Not only was there the bees at the base of the tree, but about two metres up, we found another entrance.

And then finally, we found one more, on the other side of the tree, but completely out of reach, about six meters up, a steady stream of bees catching the sun’s light in their wings.

This is extraordinary, Iain,’ said my Aunty, and then told me why this was such a great thing to see. The Varroa mite that had wiped out many bees in Europe and North America had not spread to Australia. Only one case of it had occurred in Darwin, but it had been caught through border protection.

I set up my microphone and audio gear, and crept towards the base of the tree to record the bees leaving the hole, trying to ignore mosquitoes. Bees flying in and out would occasionally bump into the black windsock of my microphone, then instantly resume their flight path. The sound was great – but my batteries ran out after about a minute.

Not bringing spares batteries was a rookie error. So we decided to come back the next day, this time bringing my brother’s brother in law, Terry, with us to take photos of the bees.

Here are some of his pics.

Photograph of wild bees by Terry Wheeler Photography

A bee coming into land at the second entrance to the hive.

Photograph of wild bees by Terry Wheeler Photography

Bees around the mouth of the second entrance, about two metres up from the ground.

Photograph of wild bees by Terry Wheeler Photography

Close up of a ‘wild colonial bee’.

Expert Beemaster Ann Chilcott identifying wild bees

Expert beemaster Ann Chilcott (my Aunty) pointing out the second entrance to the tree.

Photograph of Wild Bees by Terry Wheeler Photography

Bees around the first entrance at the base of the tree.

Iain Wilson recording wild bees at base of tree

Making a sound recording at the first entrance.

Photo of the Bee Tree of Parramatta - copyright Wheeler

The upper reaches of the bee tree!

Thanks to Terry, we managed to get these great pictures. But we also had a good conversation about the nature and behaviour of the bees with my Aunty, while walking around the area.

Just judging from my Aunty’s excitement, I realised that this was quite a special find; especially to someone who loved and valued bees. According to an article she wrote for World Bee Day, every third spoonful of food in the world is directly connected to bees — not just through the consumption of honey, but through their pollination of plants bearing fruit and vegetables. It’s not something you would often think about, but we would really be in trouble without them!

When we got back home that evening, I could still smell the honey on my calico bag. I could guess that scent molecules, dispersed into the air by the bees travelling in and out of the hive, had somehow become attached to me while I was kneeling at the base of the tree!Illustration of a bee in flight

Anyway, I made this video and post to coincide with World Bee Day, May 20th. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Follow the bee action on Twitter!

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