Take the next step in sustainable living and keep bees at home for fresh honey and a healthy yard
Honey can be harvested when a frame is three-quarters capped with wax
Bees and human beings have co-evolved over many thousands of years and in the last century the relationship has spawned a global industry.
Recent times have seen a boom in urban farming and sustainable living, putting hobby beekeeping firmly back on the agenda.
For a yield of fresh, natural honey up to three times a year depending on the climate and general health of the hive, beekeeping is a relatively low-demand interest.
It can also be accommodated in small spaces and city environments.
Our suburban landscapes and cities have plenty of nectar-rich flowers and bees will happily produce honey and serve in their essential role as nature’s pollinators.
Beekeeping at home
Most of us try to avoid them, but without bees our natural ecosystems would collapse. Worldwide, bees are responsible for pollinating a third of all crops, including orchard fruits, nuts and most vegetables.
Industrialisation within agriculture has brought dramatic changes for the lives of bees and large-scale beekeeping has become big business.
Because wild bee populations have dwindled dramatically while the demand for crops has skyrocketed, commercial apiarists keep thousands of colonies and rent them to farmers to pollinate crops.
This leads to bees being transported thousands of kilometres and then introduced to new and often hostile environments, which threatens the bees and hastens the spread of disease.
Just this year, the Californian almond harvest, source of much of the world’s supply, was under threat because there were simply not enough bees to pollinate the plants.
Scientists and theorists put forward many reasons for the great decline.
Global climate change, pesticides used on crops, decline of wild habitats, a hive-destroying insect called the small hive beetle, and a nasty parasite called the varroa mite all play significant roles.
As does monoculture, or forcing bees to pollinate only one species of plant, which happens commercially.
Luckily, Australia is unaffected by the varroa mite, but many of the other conditions that threaten bees and their survival exist here and experts feel that it’s only a matter of time before the mite reaches our shores.
TIP For a free online training course on bee health and biosecurity visit planthealthaustralia.com.au
Take up the hobby
Keeping a couple of beehives for home honey production is a rewarding and undemanding hobby that will produce up to 20kg of liquid gold a year, more than enough to supply the family.
Greg Deakin has been keeping bees for 25 years and has seen a huge increase in the number of people interested in having a hive or two in the backyard.
‘People are getting greener and many are noticing that their gardens are not being pollinated like they used to be. This sparks an interest in bringing pollinators to the garden and bees are foremost among them,’ he says.
You need space to house the hives, ideally away from neighbours, and the willingness to learn.
The best idea for anyone wanting to start hobby beekeeping is to join a local club. There are many listed online and local councils also offer information and guidelines.
Greg obtained his knowledge the hard way, through trial and error.
‘Now, with all the gear and access to a club, you have so much support and shared information,’ he says.
‘Bees can be susceptible to many diseases and it’s a climate dependent hobby, so there are variables.’
Despite the challenges, the hobby has a very successful uptake.
‘Most people who show an interest go on to keep hives and really enjoy the process. It’s very family friendly, for the obvious reasons of fresh honey and environmental contribution.’
TIP Check with your local authority before setting up a hive because you may need to be registered with the Department of Primary Industries.
Local beekeeping clubs provide information to new enthusiasts
Planting for pollination
If you don’t want to commit to beekeeping, you can do your bit by consciously planting to attract pollinators to the garden.
Native gardens will attract native honey bees, but all types of bees enjoy a wide range of nectar sources. The highest sugar content is what a bee is actually after, and blooming annuals are the best providers. Examples are: lavender, clover, coreopsis, aster, marigold, poppy, sunflower and zinnia flowers.
Planting in a crescent shape in a sunny, sheltered area of the garden will bring the bees buzzing and keep flowering plants happy.
Planting aster flowers and other blooming annuals will attract bees into your garden. Image: Thinkstock
What you need
September is the ideal month to start and you can set yourself up for about $600, with little further investment other than jars for storing honey. Here’s what you need to get started.
HIVE to house 40,000 to 60,000 bees. Start with one box, adding boxes up to four layers high three to four weeks later as the numbers increase.
Not giving the bees enough space can cause swarming, in which the queen leaves with a number of workers and drones and establishes a new hive.
There are several components you’ll need to set up the boxes, including frames, foundation sheets that go in the frames, stainless steel wire to suspend the foundations in the frames, and paint to finish it all off.
A beehive is a very moist environment as the bees have to evaporate 60 to 70% of the moisture from the nectar to make honey, so nails and other hardware should be cement or plastic-coated.
SMOKER of any size, although larger ones are easier to keep lit. You can burn bark, casuarina needles, woodchips, even hessian, but don’t use anything that has been sprayed with pesticides.
PROTECTIVE GEAR such as a suit that covers you head to toe, or a veil, gloves, long sleeved top and long trousers, socks and shoes.
HIVE TOOL to lift off the lid, move the boxes around and lift out the frames. Buy a commercial one or use a flat drive screwdriver for the job.
BRUSH for gently removing bees from the frames when harvesting honey.
BEES are sold by weight and a 2kg bag of bees costing about $100 is sufficient for a four-box hive. Each bag contains a new queen in her own wooden cage. She is placed in the box and the rest of the bees are shaken in.
Not giving the bees enough space causes swarming in which the queen leaves with workers and drones and establishes a new hive
Though a bee sting can cause potentially fatal anaphylaxis in
a very small minority of people, it generally triggers a localised reaction of swelling, redness and itching that should improve within a few hours.
Remove the stinger as quickly as possible using a fingernail, then ice the area and take an antihistamine or ibuprofen tablet.
Seek immediate attention if there are multiple stings to the face, or if symptoms occur such as difficulty breathing, a spreading rash, a swollen mouth, eyes and throat, and a rapid pulse.
Types of bees
Most of the bees you buy for beekeeping in Australia are Italian honey bees. Well suited to hiving
they make plenty of surplus honey.
Kangaroo Island in South Australia is home to the only pure Ligurian bee colonies in the world and is an environmentally protected site.
NATIVE BEEs come in about 1600 varieties but only five of these form colonies, which is the social habit required for hiving. The others are solitary bees, with each fertile female building a nest for her eggs.
Most natives don’t produce honey but 10 stingless species create small amounts, with a very distinctive taste. These are social bees that tend to hive in trees and prefer warmer climates.
HONEY BEEs comprise seven of the 20,000 known species of bee. Many species make honey but only honey bees make enough to be harvested.
Some only make enough to feed the queen, others make enough to feed themselves and a little extra. Certain strains make as much as they can.
BUMBLEBEEs are a species not native to Australia. Common in the northern hemisphere, they are larger and hairier than honey bees, with very defined black and yellow stripes. They share many habitsbut don’t live in large colonies or produce much surplus honey.
Feral European bumblebees were accidentally introduced to Tasmania in the early 1990s and are considered a pest.
Native Australian bees come in approximately 1600 varieties. Image: Shutterstock
Australian beekeepers' calendar
Honey production is seasonal, according to the needs of the hive.
The first flowers appear and nectar and pollen duly increase. The queen responds by laying more eggs to increase the population of the colony.
Most of the honey that is made will be eaten by the bees, who need it for wax production, energy and maintaining hive temperature, so there will be little surplus.
By summer, the colony is at full strength. The adult workers will die between six and eight weeks after producing a honey surplus.
During the summer months, honey can be harvested up to three times per hive. The hive requires little intervention but there must always be enough empty cells on the frames available to take honey.
Most nectar-providing flowers are finished by autumn so the population declines. Some frames used to store surplus honey can be removed
to make the hive smaller and easier to keep warm.
This reduces the honey in the hive, but there is enough for the bees to survive winter, ready to start work again in spring.
In very cold conditions, bees stop flying and form a tight cluster in the hive to stay warm, though in mild climates this may not be necessary.
The brood nest is small in winter and adult worker bees may live for up to three months. The hive should be left alone as much as possible at this time.