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George Schwarz and his wife Charis, both in their seventies, are cherished members of the East Sydney neighbourhood. George is a practicing artist, Charis a writer, both are mulberry wine-makers and avid motorcycle enthusiasts – but to their local community they are also, perhaps most importantly, ‘The Riley Street Beekeepers’.
The Schwarzes live less than two kilometres from the Sydney CBD, and from the backyard of their small terrace house, produce close to 350 kilograms of honey each year. They maintain four hives of honeybees situated on the roof of a garden shed that is screened from neighbouring houses with vegetation. Their bees collect nectar from plants in a three to four kilometre radius of Riley Street, an area that encompasses Hyde Park, the Royal Botanical Gardens, and the street trees of the city and inner suburbs.
George and Charis have been urban beekeepers for more than 30 years. They began in 1980 when George, who had been battling with a bought of depression, awoke one morning in the midst of an epiphany. “Bees!” he cried, and just like that the couple’s future as beekeepers was decided.
The Schwarzes started out by apprenticing for an expert – an elderly man who had learnt the art of apiculture in Egypt. From their mentor they learnt the technicalities of beekeeping – how to obtain a hive and set it up properly, how to shelter the bees, and keep them healthy, and how to ‘rob’ the honey when the time was right.
But they also learnt about their place in the bee world: that they would never be ‘keepers’ in the sense of owning bees like pets or having any control over them. Instead, they say, by nurturing bees and letting them do their own thing, they would be afforded the privilege of observing their ways and developing an acute awareness of nature and weather patterns.
After they had completed their two-year long apprenticeship and developed a huge respect for bees, the Schwarzes established their own hives. They then began to adopt and rehabilitate abandoned hives all around Sydney. At their busiest point they were custodians of 14 hives, scattered from Dural to Botany. Once the fostered hives were flourishing and productive, they passed them on to others, and these days, with health becoming an issue, the Schwarzes are happy to focus their efforts on their hives at home.
Their efforts at home go a long way in the local community. Honey is given to friends and neighbours, and sold each Saturday at the Taylor Square Sustainable Markets, raising money for the East Sydney Neighbourhood Association. The wax goes to the nearby National Art School, for use in sculpture and painting courses. Any excess honey is then taken care of by George, who brews it into a dry style of mead (honey-wine), traditional to his homeland of Switzerland.
As well as all the hands-on work, the Schwarzes are active members of the New South Wales Apiarists Association. They lobby on bee-related issues when required, capture stray swarms when called upon and give public talks on occasion. They have been advocates of urban beekeeping for a long time, but recently began to feel a sense of urgency to spread a message about protecting bees.
In recent years, diseases such as the varroa mite (Varroa destructor) have proliferated, causing what’s been termed as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (CCD) around the world. CCD involves the demise and non-recovery of whole hives or colonies of bees. It is estimated that honeybee numbers in the USA have dropped by about 35 per cent in recent years, and in parts of Europe bee losses are thought to have reached more than 50 per cent.
While Australia is lucky to have the most disease-free bees in the world at the moment (our bees are currently exported to the USA to boost colony numbers there), the Schwarzes worry that our quarantine procedures are not strict enough and that it may only be a matter of time before CCD becomes a serious problem here.
They worry too, that bees have an undeserved reputation as pests, and that people are overly nervous about keeping them in residential areas.
“Only a tiny percentage of people are truly allergic to bee venom,” George says. “We don’t have ‘killer bees’ in Australia, and as long as bees are well managed, they don’t cause problems for neighbours.”
But the Schwarzes are very clear that beekeeping, whether in the city or elsewhere, is not a hobby that you can just pick up and leave. It requires long-term dedication and hard work. Harvesting is required up to four times a year – usually in the hottest months when wearing a protective suit is less than ideal.
“Learning how to do it is very intensive in the beginning,” Charis says. “There is heavy lifting involved and with our bees on the roof, we have had to get used to working in a particular way in a cramped space.”
“When there is good honey-flow [plenty of nectar available] the bees are happy, but when there is no honey-flow, they can get very cranky and there’s not a lot you can do to change that,” George says.
“Drinking your own mead is really the only easy part about beekeeping. But you develop a kind of love for them.”
And an intuition too, it seems. After all these years of tending bees in a holistic manner, George is at a stage where he believes he can sense the bees giving him cues. They now tell him when they need attention and when the hives are ready for harvesting.
“He will come inside and say, “We need to rob the honey tomorrow.”” Charis says. “So that’s when we do it. Our approach these days is really dictated by experience.”
Despite the hard work, the Schwarzes say there is a lot to be gained by those willing to commit themselves to beekeeping for the long-haul.
“Working with bees is spiritually enriching,” Charis reflects. “They are awe-inspiring and keep you close to nature. They give you soul food, not just honey.”
“It’s a holy affair,” George concludes.