Renewed buzz about backyard beekeeping

19 August 2014
The worker bees in action, bringing pollen and nectar back to the man-made hive. Photo: Kaitlin Liemandt
The worker bees in action, bringing pollen and nectar back to the man-made hive. Photo: Kaitlin Liemandt

Bees are arguably the most invaluable species on the planet. Not only do they pollinate some 250,000 species of flowering plants, their existence is vital to the entire ecosystem. Birds and small mammals rely on the food chain supply that begins with pollination and ends with us. 

A lot of us probably believe there is little we can do to take care of our biggest pollinators, particularly when many are afraid of getting stung. But the world’s bees are disappearing rapidly, and the sting of a bee will feel like heaven compared to the consequences of human ignorance.

The most recent threat to Austalia’s bees is the Varroa mite, sometimes known as the Varroa destructor, which has been killing honey bees around the world. According to CSIRO, it will inevitably reach Australia, having already invaded nearby New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

The mite is parasitic and feeds on the blood of larvae and honey bees. It can also transmit viral and other pathogens which can kill entire colonies. For an industry worth around $90 billion per year, the Varroa would harm more than just bee colonies. 

To quote Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

Fortunately, there has been a recent spike in backyard beekeeping across the country, which has been reported by the ABC in rural areas like Alice Springs as well as suburban and city settings.  

The growing popularity of self-sufficient and green living has given a breath of fresh air to the pastime that is beekeeping. But what is it all about and how can someone like you actually look after a bee colony? 

While the internet is rife with information, it is the knowledge of those who have been beekeeping for years that will sustain the growing trend of backyard beekeeping.

Ron Miller, 67, of Lismore, has been beekeeping since he was a child, taught the tradition by his own father whilst growing up in regional NSW. His understanding of bees is derived from decades of care taking and his knowledge is worth its weight in golden honey. He has two hives permanently in his backyard and manages other hives at different sites. 

The hives are towers of white boxes placed in neatly spaced rows, which at a distance look like an aerial view of suburbia. The bees take little notice as Ron inspects them with his bare hands, pulling the frames out individually to check honey yield and hive health. 

Ron transports his hives to different locations two or three times a year, depending on the seasons. In February, he moved his 38 hives to a secluded spot near Evans Head NSW. Surrounded by bottlebrush trees and native flowers, the bees had a plentiful supply of pollen and nectar to collect for their hives. 

“I visit the boxes occasionally before I collect the honey, to check up on them. Right now, the biggest threat are the Small Hive Beetles,” Ron explains as he points to plastic beetle traps that look like CD cases.

The Small Hive Beetle of South African origin was first discovered in Australia in 2002, and has rapidly spread. The beetles burrow into the hives, feed on the larvae, and defecate in the cells, which contaminates the honey and causes fermentation. The best management is to ensure hives are kept strong.  

The relationship between Ron and his bees is educated, intuitive and respectful.

“I look after them,” he says subconsciously. 

Ron extracts the honey at the back of his suburban property in a small shed. The walls are spattered with aged spots of honey that have dried onto the tin over the years. The honeycomb plates spin inside a rusted red extractor tank which was made in 1959 by beekeeping pioneers Pender Bros Pty Ltd.  

Ron believes that irresponsible beekeeping is harmful to bee survival.

“You can’t just read a book about beekeeping, you can’t just read a how-to guide. There is so much more to it. 

"It’s about knowing your bees. It’s about knowing the seasons and checking for sickness in the hives,” he reflects.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries outlines that backyard beekeeping needs to be approached with caution and understanding. The Primefact sheet highlights that important consideration needs to be taken on aspects such as location in the yard, proximity to neighbours, and bee diseases. Because worker bees travel distances there is the risk of spreading diseases to other colonies. 

Nearby, in Nimbin NSW, a group of between ten and 40 beekeepers host meetings once a month to show beginners how to create their own beekeeping set up. Participants are shown how to build a hive, how to introduce bees to it, how to expand the colony and everything else along the way. 

The group, Nimbin Natural Beekeepers, is organised by Alan Snell who says they came together after watching a film about endangered bees three or four years ago.

"About twenty concerned people got together to try to do something...our mission is simple: more bees."

They aim to educate people on managing both European and native bees. Many local people are advised to plant things like lavender, tea tree, and bottle brush which encourage and support native bees.

“Unless people like us take the time and energy to look after the bees they will disappear,” Alan said.

The message is clear: if humans better understand bees, a respectful relationship which will encourage a more robust bee population. And the stronger the bee population, the more secure our food supply. 

Nearly 70 per cent of our food supply is dependent on bee pollination. Whilst crops such as wheat, barley and rice self-pollinate, having managed pollinators can increase quality and reduce agricultural inputs, such as water and time.

INFOGRAPHIC: Based on findings from the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Transport, "Future of beekeeping and pollination service industries Australia", July 2014, Parliament House, Canberra. Credit: Kaitlin Liemandt 

It should raise alarm bells when one of Australia’s biggest honey producers asked customers to use its product sparingly in June. As it struggles with a nationwide honey shortage, Beechworth Honey asked supermarkets to place stickers on remaining products which warned customers of low honey supplies. Director Jodie Goldsworthy said that limiting consumption was vital after an unfavourable season. 

“This year has been the worst on record in the country,” Ms Goldworthy told the ABC. “Most of our beekeepers would be down in production between 50 and 90 per cent, depending on where they’re situated. Basically just a series of bad weather events over many months have largely wiped out most of our honey crops across the country.” 

Worldwide, bees are disappearing for a variety of other reasons.

In the US, there was a 50 percent loss of colonies in beekeeping operation between 2007 and 2008, the result of a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. The strange disappearance of entire bee colonies has no obvious single cause, but is thought to be the cumulative result of pesticides, malnutrition, infectious agents, electromagnetic radiation and Varroa mites. 

Most recently invaded by the Varroa mite is New Zealand which has seen their wild bee population reduce dramatically. The result has been reduced pollination of crops, both commercially and in the home garden, leading to poorer returns. Australia would likely fair the same. 

But for now, there is more than likely the opportunity to do your part for the bees. Support local beekeepers in an area near you and buy honey through local markets and health food stores. Plant some lavender or daisies in your garden and check for local beekeeping groups. 

If you happen to pass through Lismore NSW you could even stop in along Casino Street, where a yellow ‘HONEY’ sign is posted on a silky-oak tree outside a brown brick home. Buy some honey from Ron, and while you’re at it, ask him what all the buzz is about.

For more information about beekeeping associations please visit The Australian Beekeeper and The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council. Always check with your local council for specific information on beekeeping regulations in your area.