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Why these women are saving Christchurch's bees

Why the plight of the humble bumblebee affects us all.

By Ciara Pratt

Earthquakes, curtains and bumblebees. These three very unlikely things are what formed the beginnings of a beautiful friendship between Christchurch women Helen Johnson and Julie Wylie.

When Julie was displaced from her Cashmere home after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, she found herself living in Mt Pleasant, where she met Helen. The women quickly formed a fast friendship.

“We had to move out of our house and we’ve been out for six years. Helen came round one day to have a look at the garden I’d created and we were chatting in the bedroom when Helen looked at the terrible curtains in our rental property and declared, 'You need new curtains!’” Julie laughs.

“When you’re displaced, just to have a nice bedroom makes all the difference,” adds Helen.

As Helen and Julie’s friendship grew deeper, they discovered they both shared a love of conservation and the environment.

A lightbulb moment Helen had in 2015 saw the two women realise they could combine their talents to tackle an issue close to both their hearts. Helen had returned to New Zealand after spending decades overseas in senior management roles, and was looking for something to get stuck into, when the idea popped into her head.

“I’d just arrived back from extensive travel and I was looking for a purpose. An article I read a couple of years ago about bumblebees hit a spot.

“I thought this is a passion I could get behind,” she recalls.

And so the New Zealand Bumblebee Conservation Trust was born. Along with co-founder Geoff Brunsden, the pair developed the charity to educate Kiwis about the critical role bumblebees play in the environment by pollinating crops.

Helen wants Kiwis to create bee pathways by sowing wild flowers across the country.
Helen wants Kiwis to create bee pathways by sowing wild flowers across the country.

“Bees are essential for 80 per cent of global crops and 30 per cent of our food crops,” tells Helen. “Bumblebees, in particular, are the powerhouse pollinators. They’re even more effective than a honeybee.”

Julie, on the other hand, has been composing children’s music for more than 30 years under the philosophy of musical play education.

“I mentioned to Julie what I was doing and realised she could help us get our message about the importance of taking care of the bumblebee, and said, ’Julie, you could write a song!’” recalls Helen.

“About 10 minutes later, the song was literally buzzing in my head,” Julie laughs.

“Then she knocks on my door half an hour later, and says, ’I’ve got it!’” tells Helen.

Julie finished composing the song and even enlisted a group of young local dancers to star in a video to accompany it.“When children learn a song, it becomes a part of them,” tells Julie. “The song helps memory and they learn to memorise key phrases through singing it. A few parents have said they’ve got the song’s message from their children singing it all the time.”

Helen talked her music composer neighbour Julie (right) into writing a children’s song to spread their conservation message.
Helen talked her music composer neighbour Julie (right) into writing a children’s song to spread their conservation message.

The pair hope to get The Bumblebee Song into schools across New Zealand.

“We’ve started from humble, bumble beginnings but we’ve got big plans,” Helen laughs.

A big part of the trust’s work is also to encourage Kiwis to get planting wild flowers.

“We want to create bee pathways across New Zealand, then across the planet,” says Helen.

“Wouldn’t it be lovely to see wild flowers from Cape Reinga to Bluff,” muses Julie.

“Our very own bee road – that’s our vision!” says Helen.

Both women share a sense of fun in their mission to help spread awareness about the importance of bumblebees, something they say stems from going through a tragedy such as the earthquake.

“I think what’s been special, as part of the earthquake experience, is realising that you’ve got to make life an adventure. And coming up here [Mt Pleasant] with wonderful neighbours and friends enriches your life,” says Julie.

“We look out for each other, we have fun chatting and it’s a lovely friendship,” adds Helen. “I think it’s been the humour, you have to see the funny side.”

Building hope for the future is something they both want to be a part of.

“When you have children who care deeply about our plants, animals, insects and our world, we’re absolutely building hope for the future,” asserts Julie.

And Helen says despite the fun the women have with the trust, their message is a very serious one.

“Our planet needs our help and I don’t think we’ve been very good custodians.”

To find out more about the New Zealand Bumblebee Conservation Trust and how you can help, visit nzbct.org.nz.

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