Current Issue #488

Plight of the carpenter bee

Plight of the carpenter bee

A little Aussie battler of the bush has become a cause célèbre thanks to the initiative of one of Australia’s leading Baroque violinists.

Today, the green carpenter bee is only found on the western end of Kangaroo Island but formerly distributed widely across south-eastern Australia, the bee was pushed close to extinction in 2007 with the bushfires that devastated much of Flinders Chase National Park in that year.

Only small pockets of this elusive species remain, and a determined effort to save it is underway to build up its population and range.

In a wonderfully whimsical turn of events, this jewellike creature has found its champion in Lucinda Moon.

She had three pieces in mind for a solo violin concert at Scots Church on North Terrace, but they happened to be all in the key of B minor: Bach’s Partita No.1, Telemann’s Fantasia No.9, and Swedish composer Johan Helmich Roman’s Assaggio VI. Programming music in the same key is something musicians would normally try to avoid, but Moon made an exception on this occasion.

“I thought wouldn’t it be great to have a different approach and actually make a thread out of this B idea,” she says.

By chance, she knew of Philip Weinstein, who is an expert on the carpenter bee. A professorial research fellow in University of Adelaide’s School of Biological Sciences, he is also president of the Australian Entomological Society.

“He told me about this bee and so the idea of raising awareness through this concert came about,” she says. “It’s an example of cross-pollination if you like.”

“It is a lovely looking bee,” Moon continues. “Scientists are trying to reintroduce it back into its former habitat and onto the mainland, and I would love to see this happen. But there are many other species of course that we just don’t know about, and for which we also need to create awareness. So the concert in essence is about highlighting the value of biodiversity.”

An artificial nesting substrate has been developed to help rescue the green carpenter bee, and it replicates the soft, dense wood of mature Banksia marginata plants into which the insect chews a tunnel to lay its eggs. Entomologists Remko Leijs, Katja Hogendoorn and Richard Glatz are working hard to introduce these substrates to fire-affected areas and thereby extend the bee’s population and range.

“It takes up to 25 years for the Banksia wood to develop,” Weinstein says. “The big fire in 2007 burnt much of the bee’s nesting places, and the artificial nesting material is to bridge that 25-year gap.

“The problem is that every time you have a species like the carpenter bee going extinct, it puts others at risk and can lead to co-extinction. The carpenter bee is an important ‘biodiversity indicator’, which means that by monitoring its health you can tell how well the biodiversity is being preserved.”

Moon says the pieces she will perform reflect the same importance of diversity. “I’m hoping the program will highlight this idea of biodiversity,” she says.

“Although the pieces are in the same key and they belong to the 18th century, they are very different from each other and illustrate the diversity of species. The Baroque period had its ‘rules’, but these composers are free-ranging and show how one can break those rules.”

Of Bach she says: “His music is not static but is evolving and self-determining. The concept of music at that time had its rules governing structure and harmony, but he does something else, he moves beyond the ‘rules of the beehive’, so to say. In his music one is taken to the outer reaches of the universe and pulled back again.”

Moon describes Telemann as a composer who wilfully switched between and across styles, sometimes being fugal and Baroque and other times modern and galant – he was receptive to whatever influences he encountered.

“In the Fantasia No.9, he adds a wonderful French double variation after each movement,” she says. “In places there are Polish influences too. Telemann spent time in Polish taverns and uses tunes he heard but refines these to suit the prevailing western European taste at the time. They create a wonderful energy.”

The third composer, Roman, is one of the most underrated musical polymaths of his time. From his post as first violinist in the royal Swedish court in Stockholm, Moon says he was able to survey the entire European musical scene and school himself in all its styles.

“His Assaggio in B minor pulls in influences from everywhere,” she says. “The title literally means a ‘sampling’ or a ‘taste’ and it is Roman showing off his skills and wares in a range of musical possibilities.”

On display at the concert, entitled B Keepers, will be one of the artificial nesting substrates, and part proceeds will go towards rescuing the bee. And to lighten the atmosphere at interval, Weinstein will present a quiz – with jars of honey as prizes.

Jamie Cock, organiser of the Scots Church lunchtime chamber music series and otherwise known as one of Adelaide’s foremost piano accompanists, says the idea of this concert came about through “either serendipity, destiny or both”.

“A cross-pollination of disciplines occurred when the three of us met and discussed the plight of the carpenter bee and efforts to restore it to its former habitat.”

Cock views music as a platform by which we can more greatly appreciate the species, especially since music and science went hand in hand during the era of these composers.

“The fact that Roman was elected into Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences in 1740 shows how well music was connected with the sciences at that time,” he says.

The possibility that art and science might again unite today to help support endangered species such as the carpenter bee is an inspiration, suggests Moon.

“It would be wonderful if the idea gathers momentum. It feels good to be helping these guys. Let’s do more of it.”

B Keepers
Lucinda Moon, Baroque violin Scots Church
Friday, November 2

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