26 November 2015

Colour-coded bees in your garden

It's now been 43 years that I've been plodding this earth, and I've only just made a discovery that had been right in front of my eyes all that time - if only I'd looked properly at bees.

I was almost embarrassed to share my delight, in case everyone else had always known this fact. But everyone I've told has been similarly surprised (although never quite as delighted as I am by it). Just maybe, I thought, you might also be thrilled to read about it, even if you already knew.

It is this: bees that have been collecting pollen end up with vividly coloured pollen baskets, the colour revealing which flowers they have been visiting.

See the full, purple pollen basket on the bee's right hind leg. The left one is also visible.

I'd been aware of bees' dull yellow pollen baskets for years, so I wondered what those vivid purple lumps were on either side of the bumblebees patronising our phacelia patch. Could it be the pollen of those purple flowers, I wondered? Then along came a honeybee with bright yellow baskets, possibly from another person's yellow flower patch.

Then, out the front of our house on our uproariously flowering flaxes, were many bees with flamboyant orange pollen baskets - and indeed the flax flowers were tipped with the same hue.

Dwarf flax flowers. It looks to me as though some of the flowers have bright orange pollen, and some a very pale, almost white pollen. I don't know how that's possible on the same plant, but the camera is showing that it is! The bees I spotted on the flowers certainly had orange pollen baskets. 

Did you know that flying around your garden are bees with colourful jewels that reveal which flowers they've been frequenting?

15 November 2015

Beating boils with manuka oil

I've learnt a few things about treating boils as a mother, and one of the best discoveries I've made is how to use manuka oil to eradicate them.

The boil that took Anna to hospital. The pen
lines show where the infection spread down
her leg (that's called cellulitis).

A few years ago my daughter Anna began to get the most terrible boils, for no obvious reason. They'd begin as red welts like mosquito bites, then relentlessly swell into painful mounds up to 4 cm across. There would only be a few days between one boil healing and the next one starting. With one on her knee she ended up in hospital on intravenous antibiotics for three days. These were very nasty boils and we were at a loss at what to do about it.

Lab tests showed that it was Staph aureus, that ubiquitous bacteria, that was infecting her skin. Why it managed to breed so successfully on her skin, nobody knew. She was a sturdy, healthy girl in every other way.

Avoid antibiotics

Since then I've learnt even more about how bad antibiotics are for the body's healthy microbes, and as antibiotics are the treatment your doctor will prescribe for boils, you need a preventative measure instead!

(However, if you or your child has a large, painful boil with pus showing, I'd go for the antibiotics. Infection from a boil that spreads to healthy tissue is very dangerous.)

Catch them early

The best tip came from the wound care nurse who came to change the dressing on Anna's knee for a week or two after she was discharged from hospital."When you see one starting, put some antiseptic ointment on it straight away, and cover it with a plaster. Keep doing that until it fades away."

With that advice, Anna never had antibiotics again. We used either crystaderm or betadene ointment, with a little 'dot' plaster on top. The ointment is a great bacteria killer.

The key is to be vigilant so you can start early. For months I examined her skin all over every night for signs of boils beginning, and there were plenty of them. (Just to be clear though: if they aren't caught early and grow large with obvious pus showing, it's a case for antibiotics).

Not just for boils

Garden cuts and scratches can get infected with bacteria fairly easily (usually Staph aureus), so to avoid pain and antibiotic treatment it is really worth putting a bit of ointment and a plaster on such things for a couple of days.

Manuka oil is better

The trouble with the ointment is that it needs a plaster to keep it on the skin, and Anna has sensitive skin that develops welts where the sticky stuff goes. Even the sensitive plasters would leave painful red marks. Plus the plasters kept falling off, we needed a lot of them and at $10 a packet they were getting expensive.

Manuka flowers (white_
Manuka flowers
I'd tried manuka honey (the special woundcare version), because having written about that for New Scientist magazine years ago I know it blitzes Staph aureus. However, the honey hadn't worked.

Then I found manuka oil. It seems that the same compound that the bees collect from the manuka flowers which makes the honey so antibacterial is also in this oil, in a very concentrated form.

Of course, with the oil, the plasters wouldn't stick. So I just smeared a bit of oil on the baby boils each night and left the skin uncovered. The boils disappeared, usually in a three or so days (although the bigger the boil, the longer it took).

The best kind of manuka oil

It turns out that some manuka oils and honeys are more antimicrobial than others, largely depending on where the manuka is growing. The best one comes from New Zealand's East Cape (that's the big chunk of land that juts out to the right of the North Island). Fortunately that's the oil I stumbled upon first (it can be bought here).

At around NZ$25 for a tiny bottle, it seems expensive. But you only use a drop at a time, and there are no plasters to pay for... or doctor's visits, or antibiotics... so it's well worth it. Plus it comes in a glass bottle so your rubbish bin stays clear of tubes (and plasters).

Manuka flowers come in pink, too.
These are from our neighbour's garden.

The outcome

When Anna's boils were at their height, two paediatricians told me that such boil outbreaks just happen to some children for no known reason, and that they will probably keep coming for two or three years.

It's three years this month since Anna was in hospital, and the boils have almost stopped. However, just last week we were swiping manuka oil on another one, also near her knee, that looked like a mosquito bite. Constant vigilance!  I don't have to examine her anymore, because she is now old enough and sufficiently aware to tell me when she feels one starting. She says they feel a bit sore and a bit itchy.

I think they must have nearly finished, though. Anna has a few scars, but at least our family has all learnt how to deal with skin infections. Hopefully this post will help others, too.

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