Bloomin' Backyard

This is a guest post by Bruna Costa.

I lean against the kitchen sink and wait for my kettle to whistle. From my window, I see the city apartments scraping against the underside of grey clouds that blanket the western horizon. My weather vane on top of our garage tells me the clouds are driven by the south-westerly breeze that regularly drifts past its pointing arrow. I summarise the weather conditions for the day. Perfect! For my garden, that is. Overcast, with dapple sunshine, and the possibility of some showers. The weather report on my radio confirms my summation.

I savour a sip of tea from my first cuppa for the day and focus on our lively backyard. Fruiting trees planted in rows like a small orchard still bear the remains of the wonderful spring bloom we recently enjoyed. Nectarines, apricots and a variety of plums displayed their beautiful blossoms of white or pink petals with crimson stamens. The contrasting blooms seemed to compete against each other, trying to attract the attention of the visiting insects. But there were no winners. Instead, each tree, in their individual splendour, attracted a number of birds and bees that sought the nectar trapped in the heart of the magnificent blooms. Now, fresh green leaves shade the tiny fruit that cling to the branches where the fertile blossom has emerged.

The eastern spinebill can sometimes be spotted in Melbourne backyards.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

The eastern spinebill can sometimes be spotted in Melbourne backyards. Image: Cathy Cavallo

The blackbird, regular as a clock chime, welcomes the sunrise every morning with his melodious song, entertaining my senses while I sip on my tea. His message is heard by another blackbird in an adjoining yard and he responds. Are the two competing for the attention of the female who ignores them both and busily searches for her morning sustenance? Or are the two birds engaging in robust conversation, I wonder? Either way, they continue with their song until the sun has lifted above the eastern horizon.  My blackbird interrupts his discourse and drops down onto the grass to feel for subtle movements beneath his feet. He thrusts his beak into the ground and retrieves a long wriggling worm. I suspect it is his first morsel for the day. He hops across to different spots on the lawn and repeats the process several times. Once he is satisfied, he returns to his singing post, and continues his song of triumph.

The remnant blossoms of some plants bring a hint of colour to a post-spring garden.  Image: Bruna Costa

The remnant blossoms of some plants bring a hint of colour to a post-spring garden. Image: Bruna Costa

By now, other birds have begun their morning calls. I pause to enjoy my feathered visitors; breakfast can wait. The tiny thornbills busily flutter from tree to tree in search of insects. They help themselves to snippets of the sweet and attractive feijoa blossoms, then flitter off to another garden. Wattlebirds come to visit and perform their acrobatics on the fuchsia, one of their favourite feeding plants that they share with the eastern spinebill. The patient spinebill waits its turn. Once the greedy wattlebirds have taken their fill, the little bird hovers like a hummingbird, drawing sweet nectar from the petite fuchsias that hang, suspended in mid-air like Prima ballerinas poised on their tippy-toes.

I prepare my breakfast, and while I wait for the toaster to crisp up the raisin bread, I gaze out from my window. In the distance, beneath the cloud formations, three hot-air balloons glide eastward, partly guided by the winds and partly manoeuvred by their pilots. Then right before my eyes, a single bulging balloon suddenly rises up just beyond my neighbours’ rooftop. Up close, it looks enormous. Passengers in the basket chatter incessantly. I rush out onto my back verandah and wave enthusiastically.

   'What's the weather like up there?' I ask, when some passengers wave back.

   'Cold!' says one, huddling into her parker. Other passengers are engrossed in a lively discussion about their surrounds, admiring the views. Dogs in nearby backyards bark in disapproval of this intrusion. The blackbirds abruptly end their sweet song and my other feathered visitors disappear. The voices of the occupants in the baskets are so clear, I want to continue with the conversation. 

A striking orange blossom featuring a six-legged friend.  Image: Bruna Costa

A striking orange blossom featuring a six-legged friend. Image: Bruna Costa

   ‘Where are you from?’ I ask.

   ‘We’re from Elizabeth, in South Australia.’

In certain weather, hot-air balloons are not an uncommon sight over Melbourne.  Image: Bruna Costa

In certain weather, hot-air balloons are not an uncommon sight over Melbourne. Image: Bruna Costa

   'Your garden is beautiful,' one adds.

   'Thank you.'

   'You have a lot of fruit trees,' another passenger observes.


   'Do you make marmalade?'

   'Not really. We share the fruit with the birds.'

They take photos and drift away. Jets of flame shoot up into the hollow cavity of the balloon. The huge oval canvas responds to the heat from the flames and soars upwards towards the clouds. The bulging balloon continues to rise and drift in an easterly direction. I race inside and grab my camera and manage to take a photo.

Such a pity the passengers weren’t here a week ago. They missed seeing the splendid display of blossom on our fruit trees. All that’s left now are the various shades of green foliage sprouting from the branches.

I wonder if they noticed the one tree still covered with blossom: the orange tree. Its true beauty is in its simplicity; five opaque petals, white with yellow stamens. The blossoms crowd the stems and push past the fresh green leaves, and they emit a sweet subtle scent that dominates the herb garden. It does, however, have one competitor whose blossoms are equally beautiful, and that’s the lemon tree.  

Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group.
She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.

Banner image of feijoa blossoms courtesy of Bruna Costa.




To Bee Or Not To Bee

I love the end of winter. It’s as though, just when the icy mornings seem like they’ll never end, native flowers burst out and practically sing at us that the wait is over and we’re heading into spring. Wattle bursts out bright and golden all over the place. Brilliant red banksias droop down to the ground, surrounded by pale green leaves. Buzzing bees flit between flowers, wiggling their bright blue bums as they forage for nectar.

…Wait a minute…

If, like me, when someone says bee you mentally picture something like this:

…then the thought of a bee with a blue bum may be a bit surprising. Bees are yellow, right? Black and yellow, to be more specific. What’s more iconic in the bee world than the image of the yellow, fuzzy honeybee Apis mellifera? As iconic as this image is, it turns out that it only became part of the Australian landscape as recently as 190 years ago, and clearly didn’t get here on its own! The European honeybee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to provide a reliable source of honey for colonisers. The fact that they even survived the journey is pretty impressive – after all, there are notoriously few flowers in the ocean! While early Europeans may not have intended for bees to escape into the environment, inevitably it happened. Decades later, they’ve made themselves at home across virtually the entire continent. Managed hives of European honeybees continue to pollinate many of Australia’s crops, and the value of pollination and honey services from these hives is estimated to be in the billions.

As well as our crops, European honeybees visit our native plants. This results in some pretty delicious (and uniquely Australian) honey flavours, but it begs the question, what is the impact of these bees on our native pollinators?

Australia has an amazing diversity of bees, with over 1,500 species of native bees. In northern, tropical regions of the country, social species of stingless bees are commercially sold as pollinators and honey producers. However, the majority of our native species are peaceful, solitary creatures, with a variety of interesting behaviours.

Victoria is home to seven of the ten major groups of native bees – reed bees, blue-banded bees, teddy bear bees, leafcutter bees, resin bees, masked bees, and Homalictus bees. The behaviour of these groups is incredibly diverse. For example, the small but beautiful Homalictus bees have large, intricate branching nests, some of which house many females that all take turns guarding the nests from intruders. Those familiar with leafcutter ants may have a clue as to the behaviour of leafcutter bees, which cut disks out of leaves and use them to build their nests.

My personal favourite, resin bees collect resins and gums for their brood cells and nest holes, and on occasion may try to ‘borrow’ some resin from the nests of stingless bees. Some of these species are dazzlingly beautiful, with species of Homalictus bees ranging from golden-blue to coppery red. Others, such as masked bees and reed bees, are mainly black in colour, with only a few bright markings. One of the most dynamic of the bee groups, the blue-banded bees are delightfully rotund and have bright stripes of white or blue across their abdomens.

The alluring blue-banded bee ( Amegilla cingulata ). 

The alluring blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata). 

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of feral European honeybees in the last 80 years. As many of our native pollinating species have considerable environmental overlap with European honeybees, this spread could indicate considerable trouble for our natives. There has been a number of investigations analysing potential impacts of European honeybees; however, a review by Paini (2004) found that most of these studies suffered from confounding factors or low replication, making it difficult to ascertain how much of an impact invasive honeybees are directly having on native pollinators. As recently as 1992, the bumblebee species Bombus terrestris has inhabited Tasmania, spreading widely across the state in the short time it’s been there. While there is some evidence of displacement of native bees, the major concern is how B. terrestris increases seed production of invasive weeds, helping them to disperse further.

This seems to be the issue on the mainland as well: European honeybees are also fond of non-native plants like Scotch broom, resulting in a decrease in native flora and feeding opportunities for our native bees and pollinators. While the impact of invasive bee species may still be unclear, what researchers generally agree upon is that deforestation and loss of floral and nesting resources is one of the major concerns for our native bees. Clearing of land for agricultural use decreases their available habitats, whilst constant grazing can restrict the regeneration of particular plants, restricting their range.

All of this raises the question: how can we ensure our native bee species are preserved so that we don’t lose them forever, as has been seen in parts of Europe? One answer may be in commercial applications. For example, the blue-banded bee is currently being investigated as a potential pollinator for tomato plants, thereby eliminating the need for B. terrestris on the mainland. Another avenue is an increase in public interest. In the UK, the Bumblebee Trust has taken off in recent years, as the public became aware of their decreasing numbers and sought to save the species that remained.

In the last decade, the persistence of the drought has led to a push for Australians to plant native species in our gardens. Appreciation for our native flora has been slowly and steadily increasing. Combining this with an awareness for our native bee species could be a way of encouraging public engagement and enthusiasm for our natives, and ensuring their survival as factors such as climate change become increasingly unavoidable. 

After all, who wouldn’t want to save our bright blue beauty? 

For more information on Australia's native bees, refer to Tim Heard's book on the topic and this article about their conservation.  

Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

Banner image courtesy of

Species of the Month: September

Forest pollinators: the grey headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus)

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

With Melbourne’s warmer weather fast approaching, a unique little Australian mammal fills the night sky with a quirky array of sound and colour.  The grey headed flying fox is a megabat only found along the East coast of Australia.  Sporting a distinctive grey head and orange-brown collar the grey headed flying fox is a keystone species to our forests and is our only long distance pollinator, flying up to 50km in one night, and maintaining the biodiversity and health of forest ecosystems.  Victoria’s largest colony of grey headed flying foxes is located at the Yarra Bend reserve in Kew where up to 30,000 bats roost in trees along the Yarra River.   Unfortunately despite having large, seemingly stable populations, Melbourne’s grey headed flying foxes are faced by a couple of major threats.  With rising temperatures and increasing urban growth, this species which once numbered in their millions are facing massive population declines with as few as 400,000 grey headed flying foxes remaining in the wild.

Humans and flying foxes share a similar preference for where to establish their homes.  Because of this, increasing human populations and expanding urban sprawl have impeded greatly on the habitat of grey headed flying foxes, pushing their colonies to relocate each time their homes are destroyed.  Prior to the 1980s we had very few flying foxes in Melbourne because the winter climate was too cold for the bats to remain year round, but by 1986 warmer temperatures and a significant increase in the number of feed trees available to these pollen and nectar loving creatures allowed the first colony of flying foxes to establish in the heart of Melbourne.  By 2003 the population of grey headed flying foxes in Melbourne had quickly grown from only 15 bats to over 30,000 individuals.

Photo: Sarah Beebe

Photo: Sarah Beebe

Unfortunately with bats living so close to us and in such large numbers, there’s often a lot of conflict between humans and bats.  Flying foxes are frugivores and as such they feed on the fruits of many trees grown by landowners and farmers.  For this reason many people hold a negative perception of flying foxes without understanding just how important these creatures are in maintaining the health and biodiversity of our gum forests.  Most times humans and urbanisation pose one of the biggest threats to our flying foxes with shooting still legal in certain areas, powerlines causing electrocution, and entanglement from fruit tree netting being just a few of the dangers our bats are faced with.

The other key threatening process that our bats face is global warming.  With temperatures rising at an unprecedented rate each year, our flying foxes are acting as the ‘canaries in the coalmine’ of the climate crisis.  Unlike humans, flying foxes lack the ability to sweat, and with temperatures rising so rapidly they haven’t had time to adapt.  For the grey headed flying fox temperatures over 42 degrees are considered days of extreme heat where these creatures suffer from severe heat stress and are often seen dropping from the trees out of exhaustion.  Global warming is one of the biggest drivers of population declines of our already vulnerable flying fox colonies.

Maintaining flying fox colonies is extremely important, as without these animals we would be without the financial or physical means to do the sheer volume of work that these bats perform every night, at no cost, to conserve our forest ecosystems.  Luckily for these creatures there are many organisations dedicated to ensuring their survival such as the Australian Bat Society and the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology who perform monthly bat counts to monitor the success of Melbourne’s Yarra Bend population.  The next megabat count is on the 8th of October, and the group are always looking for volunteers to help out.  To get involved you can contact the counts organiser Rod on 0412 562 429.

Image Credit:  Alison Kuiter, Animalia wildlife shelter.

Image Credit: Alison Kuiter, Animalia wildlife shelter.

 Author: Sarah Beebe. 

Nodding Greenhood (Pterostylis nutans)


It’s September and the  weather is finally warming up! Many plant and animal species come out of their winter dormancy at this time of year. Road traffic will soon be held up by hoards of ducklings, possum joeys will start falling out of trees, and everyone will need to dust off the old anti-magpie helmet. However, one species will go about its springtime business largely unnoticed. Nodding Greenhoods (Pterostylis nutans) are flowering right now, all over Victoria.

Nodding Greenhoods, also known as Parrot’s Beak Orchids, are a relatively small orchid that grows up to 30cm high, with flowers up to 25mm long. Each plant bears a single flower, which are easy to overlook as they are green and translucent. Their name refers to the way the flower droops over, causing it to look like a hooded figure (or a parrot’s beak). At the base of the flower stem is a rosette of three to six oval leaves.

Nodding Greenhoods are found throughout most of Victoria, excluding only the dry north-western corner of the state. In regards to Melbourne, this species once inhabited much of the eastern and southern parts of the city, and today can be found in numerous parks and reserves. Nodding Greenhoods can be found throughout the Dandenong Ranges, south to Frankston and surrounds, and as far west as the CBD. Most recently I found them at Baluk Willam Nature Conservation Reserve - an absolute must-see for anyone who is interested in Australian orchids. This reserve is home to 73 orchid species - that’s over one third of Victoria’s orchids all in the one spot! Nodding Greenhoods are locally common, forming large colonies on moist, sheltered sites in a wide range of woodland and open forest habitats.

Nodding Greenhoods are able to reproduce both sexually and asexually. This means that they produce seeds, but also form clonal colonies. This species has a long flowering season, some plants flowering as early as May, others as late as December. The flowers of Nodding Greenhoods are not at all spectacular or eye-catching. Instead, this species attracts its pollinators (namely male fungus gnats) by exuding a scent that mimics the pheromones released by their pollinators’ female counterparts. The male fungus gnat lands on the touch-sensitive labellum (a modified petal), which catapults and temporarily traps the gnat against the column (an organ that both distributes and collects pollen). As the gnat struggles free, it picks up and deposits some pollen, escapes the flower, and then moves on to the next orchid. This is sexual deception as its best - Greenhoods do not produce nectar, so the gnat does all the work of pollinating the Nodding Greenhoods, but alas receives no reward.

As this species exists in relatively dry, nutrient-poor habitats, it has evolved a few mechanisms to help it survive. All Greenhoods are deciduous, meaning that for much of the year they exist as tubers in the soil, avoiding the hot and dry periods that occur over much of Summer and Autumn. Another mechanism that assists in water conservation is the rosette of leaves at the base of the flower, which helps to funnel rain towards the centre of the plant. The water then falls between the leaves at the centre of the rosette to the ground, and is absorbed by the plants roots. In order to combat nutrient-deficiency, Nodding Greenhoods have evolved a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi in the soil. This allows the orchid to exchange photosynthesised organic matter with the fungi in return for inorganic nutrients that the fungus is able to extract from the soil.

This hardy little orchid is inconspicuous and quite boring when you first look at it, but it has a pretty interesting lifestyle. If you find yourself out in the forest anytime soon, make sure to look down. There may be a Nodding Greenhood at your feet - but hopefully not under them!




Author: Emma Walsh