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One of every three mouthfuls of food we eat is the result of insect pollination, while honey bees also pollinate food for native animals and play a big role in maintaining biodiversity. But bee populations are under threat worldwide, as G discusses here. One way to help local bee populations is to become a backyard bee-keeper or create a bee-friendly garden.
“There are a lot of people getting interested in bee-keeping,” says Tim Malfroy, who teaches natural bee-keeping classes through Milkwood Permaculture. Natural bee-keeping is gentler than the conventional approach and gives bees more control over their environment. As a commercial bee-keeper for family-owned company Malfroy’s Gold, Malfroy has seen the benefits first hand. “You end up with healthier, more contented bees so you don’t get stung so much,” he says. “The honey is better quality as it’s virgin comb.”
Keeping bees naturally
The hive design used in natural bee-keeping was developed by French monk Abbé Warré in the early 20th century. Instead of frames, Warré hives use top bars – removable pieces of wood with a small edging of wax to which the bees attach their comb.
Malfroy recommends beginners add side-bars or use normal frames without the foundation, which is a sheet of beeswax embossed with hexagonal cells. Without the foundation, bees can build combs with cell sizes that suit them.
Learn the basics of bee-keeping by reading, attending a workshop or joining your local bee-keeping association. Start now and you’ll be ready for spring swarming.
Location, location, location
“Most normal-sized urban backyards are suited for one or two hives,” says Malfroy. Hives should face east to north-east towards the morning sun, with the entrance more than two metres from
any walls, facing away from traffic. Check with your council regarding regulations.
Hives can be bought from bee-keepers with or without bees, but be sure to ask for a vendor declaration to avoid disease in the bees or hive. Or you could make a Warré hive based on designs available online, adapted for Australian frame sizes. You’ll also need a smoker, a hive tool, and protective equipment such as a veil, gloves, bee suit or bee jacket.
If you feel adventurous, you can catch your own bees. “If you see a swarm of bees, you can shake them into a box,” says Malfroy. “You get locally adapted bees.” Be safe and prepared before catching your first swarm. Of course, you can always buy bees from another keeper.
“Cats, dogs and rabbits are all a responsibility, and bees are in exactly the same category. You need to care for them as you would for any other animal,” says Doug Somerville from the NSW Department of Primary Industries. That means ensuring a good supply of nectar and water, and keeping the bees healthy.
Checking for disease is important, but frequently opening the hive changes its internal temperature, causing stress. Natural bee-keepers read entrance behaviour for signs of distress, and open hives only when necessary.
All bee-keepers must register with the Department of Primary Industries or other relevant department in their state for a small fee. Registration makes it possible for the state authorities to carry out disease prevention and control programs.
“The buzz with bee-keeping is having a jar of honey to share with your friends and neighbours,” says Somerville.
Natural bee-keeping is about letting bees be bees – this means leaving them with the honey they need to survive, and only harvesting any surplus.
“Honey harvest depends on the season,” says Malfroy. “If you shake a big swarm into a foundationless natural hive, you could get 30 kg in a good season.”
Occasional beeswax is another bonus of bee-keeping. Jeffrey Gibbs is the founder of Northern Light Candle Company, which specialises in organic beeswax candles. He says making beeswax candles can be tricky, but is worth trying at home.
One person in every 10,000 is highly allergic to bee venom, but most people find they feel less pain with every sting. Malfroy remembers growing up on a commercial bee farm and being stung as often as 100 times a day, even with a suit. With natural bee-keeping, he is very rarely stung. “The main thing that really surprises people is how gentle they are.”
Native or European?
European honey bees have been kept by bee-keepers for thousands of years. More recently, some Australian bee-keepers have set their sights on domesticating native stingless bees, the only native species that produce honey.
“Bee-keeping stingless bees is in its infancy,” says CSIRO entomologist Tim Heard. “It’s still a wild species that we’re utilising.” Heard also runs a company called Sugarbag, which sells hives of stingless native bees. Sugarbag is the name for the honey produced by stingless bees, which has long been enjoyed by indigenous Australians. The yield is far less than that of European bees (about 1 kg a year) but has a distinctive flavour.
European honey bees can deal with colder climates, and thrive anywhere in Australia, while native stingless bees are better suited to the warmer areas of Australia, including the NT, Qld and in NSW, north of Sydney. If you want to keep stingless native bees, choose a species local to your area.
Creating a bee-friendly garden
If bee-keeping is not for you, why not provide local bees with a safe haven? These tips will make your garden more bee-friendly, and are suitable for renters and flowerpot gardeners.
• “Plant a variety of species native to the area,” advises Heard. Gum trees are great for larger backyards. Palm and grass trees are more suitable for smaller gardens.
Most flowering native shrubs, including grevillea, tea tree, and bottlebrush, are an excellent source of food for bees.
• In terms of introduced plants, try lavender, thyme and salvias. A broad variety provides a steadier supply of nectar throughout the seasons.
• Avoid pesticides and seeds that have been coated with systemic insecticides such as neonicotinoids.
• Experiment with companion gardening, partnering high-nectar flowers with vegetables that need pollination.
• Provide refreshments. Malfroy recommends “a shallow tray with a bit of timber or leaves floating in it, or a pond with some aquatic plants. Something the bees can sit on while they’re drinking”.
• Let areas of your garden go wild. Dead stems, tree hollows and undisturbed soil provide nesting places for native bees.
Meet the natives
From the furry brown teddy bear bees to metallic green carpenter bees, Australian native bees are staggeringly diverse in both appearance and behaviour. Most species don’t have hives or queens. Instead, a female builds a solitary nest for her eggs. Sometimes sisters nest together, taking turns to guard and forage.
Here are some ways to furnish native bees with an artificial nest. You might not get any honey, but you will get a pollination boost for the vegie patch:
• Bundle up some bamboo stalks and place them in a tree for leafcutter bees, which construct leafy cradles for their eggs, and resin bees that will seal the entrance with tree resin. Resin bees also nest in blocks of wood drilled with holes
4 to 9 mm wide and 150 mm deep.
• Homalictus bees come in dazzling colours such as golden blue, coppery red and green tinged with purple. They are ground-dwellers, so provide sandy, clayey and muddy soils for their burrows.
• Blue-banded bees love mud blocks. Cut sections of rectangular PVC downpipe and fill with clay mixed with water. Dry for two hours, then poke two holes in the top with a pen. Dry again and shake loose from the PVC. Unlike European honey bees, these brightly striped native bees can pollinate tomatoes.
The Australian Native Bee Research Centre has information, photos and videos at www.aussiebee.com.au