Whiskers of Honey Dew

Up close with the Beech Scale Insect

I started my tramping career down south, in the Canterbury foothills, Arthur’s Pass, Mount Somers. So many of those tramps always had a similar start, walking for hours through forests of gnarled trees, their trunks tar black with a little whisker of nectar. For a long time I thought this is what the bush was, that all it was that same carbuncled beech. I even began to get a little bored. I wasn’t the first to be contemptuous of beech forest, in the past its varying quality made the timber difficult to use. Beech forests had been ‘neglected’, even ‘despised’ wrote Ecologist Dr Leonard Cockayne in 1920.

All those years I walked by those whiskery trunks, I just assumed it was the way the tree grew. Maybe a couple of times I had put my tongue to it and found it sweet, but really I didn’t give it much thought. It was only when I moved islands, and then overseas that I began to wonder. Beech is more common in the South Island than the North, and those honey dew trunks are a South Island phenomenon, not part of the tree at all but the work of an insect. Each dainty, pretty whisker is in fact the anal tube of a beech scale insect. These live in the trunks feeding on the tree sap and excreting what they can’t use though those tubes. The honey then accumulates on the trunk, fuel for the sooty fungus that inevitably forms and turns them black and lumpy. And the drops are potentially a survival food says Andrew Crowe in his Field Guide to the Native Edible Plants of New Zealand, sweet enough to supply energy. Although he doesn’t say how many you’d have to lick to keep you going. Better to wait till the bees have had a go at it – honey made by bees that have been in beech forests is considered premium, and has been an export product since the 1970s.

All this, those insects, that honey I found out only once I had moved on to other forests. But even before I learned this, I had come to miss those beech forests, their otherworldly gloom and sweet scent, and the more places I’ve been, the more I realise how few are like ours, our forests of beech.