Gang-Gang - Yellow box the honey spot for beekeepers
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Gang-Gang - Yellow box the honey spot for beekeepers

In summer yellow box trees bring money, honey, birds, bees and beetles to Canberra, writes John Thistleton.

Aside from feeding birds, bees, bats and beetles and harbouring wood ducks and owls, another good reason not to chop down yellow box gum trees is freshly cut, it smells like vomit.

On the other hand, when hot summer nights open yellow box buds into creamy blossoms, it smells like honey, which is why it is called melliodora.

Urban Honey apiarists Carmen and Mitchell Pearce check spent blooms on a yellow box melliodora in Ainslie.

Urban Honey apiarists Carmen and Mitchell Pearce check spent blooms on a yellow box melliodora in Ainslie.Credit:Jamila Toderas

Ecologist Dr Michael Mulvaney says yellow box's name comes from the yellowish colour of its wood when chopped for firewood. "It's hardwod, a slow burner, it doesn't spark or sputter like applebox, it burns beautifully," says Mulvaney, who has hundreds of reasons for planting yellow box, rather than cutting it up for the fire.

So can apiarist Carmen Pearce.

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"If you are able to extract some yellow box honey," says Pearce, "it is good shelf honey because it is a beautiful light colour. Traditionally it has been Australia's favourite honey over the decades. People pay a premium price in a commercial market for yellow box, because it doesn't crystallise for maybe five years, if it is a good sample."

Pearce says yellow box has a two-year flowering cycle.

"It flowered prolifically last year around Ainslie and it looked like there was some budding there [this year], but it's a minor budding, it is not a prolific budding like there was last year. It will flower in the summer, it can flower as early as late spring, but it won't produce nectar until it is really warm . As soon as it gets cold it stops producing nectar.

"So it is quite a fickle flower, it's a fussy flower. But this weather we have had recently, close to the 30s and above, it will be producing a little nectar, as it gets warmer it will produce more nectar."

Yellow box honey at left and Ainslie yellow box honey, from other sources as well as the eucalypt, which causes the darker colour.

Yellow box honey at left and Ainslie yellow box honey, from other sources as well as the eucalypt, which causes the darker colour.Credit:Jamila Toderas

The Pearces business Canberra Urban Honey's mission to increase pollination throughout Canberra was recognised last month with Mitchell Pearce, Carmen's son, wong the Australian Sustainable Cities national young legends award. But the fourth generation bee keeper admits the family's bee knowledge lies deepest within the Inverell region from where they have come.

Pearce expects decades will pass before he understands the mysteries of eucalyptus flowering in Canberra. On the other hand Dr Mulvaney, a conservation planner for the ACT Government, relies on science and 25 years of observing yellow box melliodora growing on Red Hill.

Mulvaney says because yellow box grows on good soils, it's been a target for agriculture ever since Europeans arrived, and 95 per cent has been cleared nationally, but only 58 per cent in Canberra.

"We have retained much more than anywhere else, partly because in 1909 we had rural leases which were more restrictive in [land] clearance. That happened before diesel tractors and chemical fertilisers were applied ad hoc."

Mulvaney says the ACT's remnant yellow box covers tens of kilometres, with 400 and 500 year -old trees among them.

"I've measured trees on Red Hill and the oldest I have found is 350 years." He cites J.C.G Banks growth ring analysis of yellow box in the Canberra region, using their diameter at breast height to age them.

"The oldest yellow box that Banks aged was 400 years, the oldest trees on Red Hill as estimated by trunk size is 350 years."

Having the biggest remnants of yellow box means the ACT attracts Commonwealth funding to thicken wildlife habitat. The trees also bring in rare regent honey eaters and other migratory birds to feed on the nectar.

"You can get sugar gliders and all sorts of birds eating the insects. Because they are on those better soils and they are big and producing a lot of nutrition, they are a keystone species in the environment."

In time termites hollow out the trunks, creating a home for wood ducks and owls.

The bigger ACT remnants can shelter more than 250 native woodland plant species in places like Mulligans Ridge, Red Hill, Mt Majura and Mt Ainslie. "They are an engine room of the woodland community," Mulvaney says.

John Thistleton is a reporter for The Canberra Times.

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