20 Dec 2011

making halva

Well - I am currently undertaking my first attempt at making halva - and while stirring the
slowly heating honey on the stove, I started to hear a gradual increase in the sound of the
hum of bees - I hadn't thought that they would have taken any notice or interest in my baking attempt - but I was WRONG. The sound is actually getting louder and more frantic - in order to prevent the bees from coming inside (which they are currently trying to do) and taking back their honey, I had to fully close the backdoor, because as I type, there are currently about 10 bees at the back door trying to come in to repossess their honey - I will post again letting you know how the halva turns out!!

9 Dec 2011

Swarming in skeps

Swarming of colonies is probably one of the major concerns or challenges for beekeepers, especially for novices in the suburbs.

Victorian regulations recommend that measures are taken to prevent swarming. The conventional beekeeping approach to 'manage' the colony is to inspect for signs (usually the construction of swarm queen cells) every 7-10 days in spring then perhaps splitting the colony or some other intervention.

Whilst this is hardly 'bee friendly', it also involves a lot of effort and is not 100% effective. The challenge for natural beekeepers is to somehow manage swarming without undue intervention. This is something I'm going to be looking into before next spring, having seen my own first year hive swarm (with casts) some 4-6 times this year! Most of which I caught because I happened to be working at home - but I think I missed the big one (the prime swarm) a week before. Of course . . .

Here are two incredible videos showing how skep beekeepers in Germany handle swarming in a somewhat natural way (that's such a subjective term!). So whilst a lot of what is shown is specific to commercial skep keeping, there is some good general information on the mechanics of how swarming occurs.

7 Dec 2011

Beginning beekeeping with Langstroth or top bar hives?

David Heaf, a leading UK based proponent of Warre hives (see our Links page) often writes on the topic. Below is an extract from 'The Welsh Beekeeper' magazine, Winter 2011.

In it he's responding to an earlier article by Wally Shaw who appears to dispute sustainable beekeeping and particularly Johann Thür's concept of 'Nestduftwärmebindung' (the retention of nest scent and heat) something which is core to the design of the Warre's hive and natural beekeeping. Andrew J has previously posted to the group on this concept and it's a topic we should cover in a future blog post . . .

Anyway . . . I just thought the snippet below was interesting for us:

Shaw's concluding remark is: 'A quick fling with a top bar hive can be quite interesting for an experienced beekeeper but this is no way to form a lasting relationship with your bees.' Beekeepers should be free themselves to determine the nature of the relationship that they want with their bees, and to choose the hive that seems appropriate to them. Many beginners choose top-bar hives at the outset, often despite being told of the advantages of frame hives, one of which is that it is usually a lot easier to find a mentor close at hand. Most stay with them because they find top-bar hive beekeeping more satisfying. Furthermore, several commercial beekeepers have turned to the Warré hive, one of whom used to manage 2,000 Langstroths. I would like to see diversity in beekeeping rather than the uniformity that could arise from the straitjacket of Langstrothism.
David Heaf

Full article is available here.

BTW - we have in Australia our own early adopter and promotor of Warre hives and natural beekeeping. Tim Malfroy of Malfroy's Gold. I'm very pleased that Tim has recently joined our email group.

24 Nov 2011

Screening: 'Honey Bee Blues'

Newly formed group The Urban Bee Guild is holding an event to gather together Melbourne beekeepers.

We are the Urban Bee Guild and our aim is to promote beekeeping in urban Melbourne.

We are not a club as such (we don’t have monthly meetings) we focus on events that will help educate urban beekeepers and the bee-curious about responsible and sustainable beekeeping as well as urban produce and threats like the varroa mite.

“We” are a group of Melbournians passionate about beekeeping, including Mat & Vanessa (from rooftophoney.com.au), Sabine (a biosecurity expert), and Simon (finance guy and amateur beekeeper).

After the screening we will be discussing bees, urban beekeeping, urban farming, to name a few. So if you’re bee-curious, love gardening, keep bees, or are concerned with sustainable food sources come along and enjoy the company of other like-minded folk!

Film: Honey Bee Blues
A documentary about the world’s disappearing honeybees and the efforts of Australian scientist Dr Denis Anderson to save them from annihilation.

Where: The Whitehouse, 11 Princes Street, St Kilda, Melbourne

When: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at 6:00pm 


Bee keeping for the energy descent future by David Holmgren

Su learning the art of reading a frame of comb and bees at Melliodora 2007 from urban bee keeper Andy Carter.

One of the reasons I was subliminally primed and ready to accept bees in my life (and garden) was a comment made by David Holmgren as I attended one of his home garden tours.

He was talking about the hives that Su Dennett kept at Melliodora. He said that it was probably the highest energy output for the given input (or something like that - I'm sure he was more eloquent!). But it stuck with me.

In my humble opinion, natural forms of beekeeping best fit David's description because many conventional/commercial approaches to honey production are highly energy intensive from a full life cycle/systems perspective. Whereas home based beekeeping, done appropriately can have significantly greater net returns for less environmental impact.

Now I never imagined me keeping bees myself - just seemed like one of things that other people do. But then it just clicked as a natural part of my attempts at our family learning to become more self sufficient. It's a skill worth investing in. Once I started, I was bitten by the bee bug - so to speak!

David's full article is here.

Bin there, done that.

As a service to the local community, beekeepers will often assist with the removal of bee swarms and colonies which have settled in troublesome places. Better to do that (and perhaps build your apiary) than allow exterminators and 'pest controllers' to wipe them out.

Possum boxes (as homes for bees) are mentioned elsewhere on the blog, compost bins seem to be another favourite place for bees to settle. Bees high in the trees bother no-one - bees in the bin can be more of an issue.

Today we (Andrew, Ben, Tony) removed such a 'compost colony' for an elderly lady. It will be rehomed in Elthan with Ben. Ben is a professional photographer and convenes the local Permie group at Eltham. He met us through Andrew's Natural Beekeeping presentation to that group and was so enthused he wanted to get started right away.

Here are some of Ben's (the good ones) and Tony's (the snaps) pictures. Ben's working on an animated version . . .  

Tony, Andrew, Ben & 'composted' bees
The beginning
Some heavy comb fell off the roof - most was attached to the inside
What was left on the roof
Brood comb being framed and hived

Framing comb - working fast!

Wild and framed comb
Drone brood comb - which was sacrificed
Spidery remains of comb on the lid
More of the inside of the bin
Heroes in action
The end

Tony, Andrew, Ben and hived bees

Swarm capture and hive conversion

click picture for larger version
Comb made by a 2 week old colony (from a swarm issued by my first hive). I captured the swarm in my garden, and contained it in a temporary capture hive with three frames (Andrew's system).

Since the weather turned bad (cold and rain) for 4 days, I could not transfer them to a Langstroth hive for 3-4 days. When I tried, I lifted the roof off the capture box to find the bees had started building 'wild' comb from the roof, rather than using the three, fully foundationed frames! (BTW - a setup I no longer use . . . ) I returned the lid and retreated for plan B.

I then waited until my Kenyan hive was ready for use and transferred them and the comb into that hive, which took some modified top bars to hold in the comb until the bees fastened it. This colony in the capture box was by then 2 weeks old and had four significant combs, one of which did actually use the frame (since they ran out of empty roof space).

During the transfer, I had to bring this frame (pictured) into the house to remove the wires, then cut the comb to fit the Kenyan top bars. You can see its full of shiny honey (not yet capped) and pollen (below the honey).

There is some damage here, as I manhandled the frame in a frenzy of bees. They were actualy VERY tolerant and did not try to sting as I ripped their hive apart. As a bee friendly beekeeper, I'd rather not be doing this type of thing to the bees, but sometimes you just get backed into a corner by circumstances - or perhaps my lack of experience and planning. It's good experience though, for the future.

You can also see the frame side bar and wires used to hold in the foundation and the foundation itself at the bottom right.

I also brought the comb in for the kids to see and taste (with a matchstick) some of the honey. At least now they have made a direct connection between honey in a jar and the ladies that made it.

I once heard about some schoolchildren who, when asked where milk came from, said 'the supermarket'. Sign of the times.

Building a Kenyan Top Bar Hive (TBH)

OR -  How to turn this:

Into this:

Otherwise known as a KTBH or hTBH (horizontal). Top bar hives are low tech, old style configurations of hives. As well as hTBH (such as the Kenyan and Tanzanian) there are also vTBH (vertical) such as the Warre.

The Kenyan was designed to be low tech, low cost and simple to build using available materials. The example pictured above (the one I built) was a luxury version with all new pine timber. Not very Permaculture, I'm afraid . . .

In the UK there are two well know proponents of TBHs - for Kenyans it's Phil Chandler and for Warre, it's David Heaf. They are also taking of elsewhere in the world. Here in Australia a few folks are serious about them and they are gaining popularity on a commercial and amateur basis. For example: Urban Hive | Malfroy's Gold | Healthy Organics.

Why go for TBH? Well there are various approaches to beekeeping using different configurations of hive 'hardware'. Commercial beekeepers tend to use standard hives, such as the Langstroth in Australia, Canada, USA and the National in the UK. These hives are frame based, meaning all of the comb can be removed for inspection and for other 'manipulations'. This has many advantages, including the ability to maximised honey yields. It's often said that a 'good beekeeper' (in Victoria) should get 100kg+ of honey per year from a well managed Langstroth.

Indeed, legislation in various places (including Australia) requires that all hives have comb which is 'on frames and easily removed for inspection' which generally means we are stuck with frames whether we like it or not. Unless the colony is a 'feral' (wild), in which case the government does not get a say in how the bees build their home . . .

TBH then is an alternative, considered perhaps 'less modern/scientific and lower yielding' by some and superior by others. 'Natural beekeepers' tend to favour TBH hives because they do not involve frames, this then allows the bees to build comb in (something more like) the way they do in the wild. This has all sorts of potential advantages which are far too detailed to go into in this post. Let's just say that one might believe that bees know better than humans how they'd like to construct their homes. Having said that, look at the homes we build in the suburbs these days and you might come to the conclusion that humans can't even build homes appropriate to our own needs, but I digress . . .

So, pure TBHs may not be legal if they do not have frames. In this case we must then add frames of some sort to our TBH designs in order to comply. This does compromise the TBH principle, but that's something we must accept as law abiding citizens.

Having decided on building a TBH, I had to choose Warre or Kenyan.

I wanted to work with as pure a TBH form as I could. The Kenyan TBH has sloping sides, which encourages the bees to make natural shaped combs which they then (purportedly) do not attach to the hive walls. In this case, you still have removable comb. I've since heard that the comb is often braced to the walls at the top end to provide strength and stability. Anyway, I thought I'd try to build one and see how it goes.

On the other hand, in an unmodified Warre, the bees build comb out to the walls which cannot be removed without cutting. Tim Malfroy has been making Warres with side bars and full frames for a while, as shown here.

One day I'll do a framed Warre too, it's just a bit more complicated/time consuming to build those internal parts accurately using basic home tools. Plans are available free on the internet for unframed and framed versions of Warres, but please note that Tim has modified the dimensions of his own design.

I'm not going to describe how to build a Kenyan - just provide a few pictures. Here are the plans, freely available:

First make the 'followers' to use as construction templates
Use them to position and prop up the sides and end plates during assembly

The main body assembled
Bottom mesh installed and my modified guide bar
The underside showing mesh and clips for 'winter board'
'Winter board' in place

Frame for the roof - design in your own style

And finally - cutting the 30 top bars (using 100% solar and GreenPower . . .)

Bees and possum boxes

I suspect bees get more out of the placement of these boxes than possums ever do! I think I've seen at least six bee colonies in them in as many weeks. One problem is that they are sometimes hard to reach when you want to remove them. Another is that they have such a small volumes that the bees have to swarm regularly in spring/summer.

Here's an example from Balwyn. This looks like a swarm (a ball of migrating bees) but it's really a colony (established with its comb).

They were very placid (as is so often the case) and I approached within inches to take the shot - so close they were out of focus . . . Underneath the layers of bees seem in the pictures, they'd formed comb outside of the hole after filling the box.

This box was since removed and the colony rehoused by an experienced beekeeper. Call the council or contact a local beekeepers/apiarists club if you have bee colonies or swarms on your property and want them removed. This can usually be done without killing them in many circumstances.

23 Nov 2011

Beekeeping and learning

Today I was at work till late so I did not get to see my bees although I said a quick hello to the seedlings I planted yesterday. But I have spent a bit of time on one of my favourite sites, the Biobees Forum. This Natural Beekeeping Network is to encourage "low-cost, low-impact, sustainable beekeeping for everyone."

Some of the topics in the forum are:
Beginners start here, Natural beekeeping discussions & questions, Your reports and updates (Post your reports here: tell us what is happening in your hives! Post links to pictures and videos if you have them, or just share your thoughts), Biodynamic beekeeping, Bright ideas, experiments, projects and research and Bee health: the treatment (or not) of diseases and parasites. Lots of learning here.

All different types of hives are discussed here and the photos are really superb helping me to know what to look for when I do the first inspection of my hive and giving me confidence. I particularly like the photos of a bee watering station that a member had built. The forum is a site that I will keep coming back to.

Image attribution:
Image: '' by Eric

Cross posted from My Garden Almanac

Buyer beware - not all purchased honey is the real deal . . .

This story from the UK's Mail Online highlights the differences between some of the highly processed honey (often sold on our supermarket shelves) and the real, raw stuff in its original form.

I know I stopped to think when a dietitian said to me "Give your son real honey." and I asked "But isn't all honey the same?". I quickly learned that it is not all the same and that's partly what brought me to keeping my own bees and only buying honey from trusted sources.

I guess we should not be surprised - one does not have to look too hard to see how so much of our food is being increasingly manipulated and 'manufactured'. See http://usc-canada.org/storyoffood/ and http://www.theendoffood.com and http://www.imdb.com/media/rm2623507200/tt1286537, for example.

21 Oct 2011

Honeybee Democracy

The name of a book released one year ago about how decisions are made in a honeybee colony.

"Honeybees make decisions collectively--and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. A remarkable and richly illustrated account of scientific discovery, Honeybee Democracy brings together, for the first time, decades of Seeley's pioneering research to tell the amazing story of house hunting and democratic debate among the honeybees.

In the late spring and early summer, as a bee colony becomes overcrowded, a third of the hive stays behind and rears a new queen, while a swarm of thousands departs with the old queen to produce a daughter colony. Seeley describes how these bees evaluate potential nest sites, advertise their discoveries to one another, engage in open deliberation, choose a final site, and navigate together--as a swirling cloud of bees--to their new home. Seeley investigates how evolution has honed the decision-making methods of honeybees over millions of years, and he considers similarities between the ways that bee swarms and primate brains process information. He concludes that what works well for bees can also work well for people: any decision-making group should consist of individuals with shared interests and mutual respect, a leader's influence should be minimized, debate should be relied upon, diverse solutions should be sought, and the majority should be counted on for a dependable resolution.

An impressive exploration of animal behavior, Honeybee Democracy shows that decision-making groups, whether honeybee or human, can be smarter than even the smartest individuals in them."

Thomas D. Seeley is professor of biology at Cornell University and a passionate beekeeper. He is the author of The Wisdom of the Hive and Honeybee Ecology (Princeton).

Listen to (or read) an interview with the author on Radio National.

19 Oct 2011

Observations of a newbie

New to beekeeping (about 2 months now), perhaps there is some use in documenting what I've noticed in case it helps others in the same situation? Having a hive in the garden for the first time is like the moment you bring a baby home from hospital (well, sort of . . .) you feel so alone and responsible.

So I guess I see things that experienced keepers may take for granted . . .

  • The bees tend to stay in the hive when very cold and when raining. OK, no rocket science there. It's interesting to see how the morning temperature (cool, warm) affects their activity levels.
  • Finding bees walking around the garden. I noticed that I always have a few bees wandering around the garden - often a long way (for such a small insect) from the hive. These bees have lost their ability to fly (old age) and seem to be busy just walking around until they die. Just beware that you might not want to wander around the garden in bare feet once you install a hive . . .
  • Dead bees at the front of the hive in the morning. The nights fatalities removed by the workers - probably 2 or 3 per night at most for a small colony. Also the occasional mal-formed grub extracted and dumped.
  • Around mid-day or early afternoon - activity outside the hive may suddenly increase with bees crawling out and over the box, on the floor, flying around and looking in all of the nooks and crannies and hovering facing the front of the box. It all looks incredibly busy and then after an hour or so they all go back inside. Compare this with the field worker bees who fly in, land get inside, drop their load and fly out - no messing around. This mid-day activity is known as 'orienteering' where the mid life bees are being 'promoted' from duties inside the hive to foraging outside of the hive. They come out to practice flying and imprinting the location of the hive for their future navigation. To me, they look like teenagers at their first party - awkward, not exactly sure what to do and watching each other for clues.
  • Do not wear perfumed anything. This applies to de-orderants, shampoo/conditioner, perfume, soap, clothes washing soap etc. These artificial smells seem to upset the bees, or at least cause them to be more interested in you than you'd like.
  • I thought all bees stay inside the hive in the dark. On warm nights, a gang of them like to relax on the porch, like us humans. I read that they may be fanning fresh air into the hive for added ventilation.
  • Don't have bright lights in the bee garden, don't use torches at night next to the hive. The lights can attract the bees and encourage them to fly. Not very comforting having stinging insects chasing you in the dark.
  • Leave them alone. Bees seem to thrive without constant attention from humans. Being a beekeeper may mean NOT dressing up in all the gear, smoker in hand and constantly opening up the hive to take a look. I'm tempted to see how my 'babies' are doing and it's prabably a good learning experience for me, but I prefer to let them be (bee) as much as possible. Plus I reduce the chance of stings.
  • The smell of a hive in warm weather. It was described to me as 'intoxicating' and it surely is as it wafts across the garden on a warm day. Must be very heavy inside the hive itself and this apparently helps provide a safe environment for the bees and their young.
  • Protect the landing strip (if you have one at the hive entrance) from collecting puddles of water in times of rain. The water easily traps the insects departing or landing and can drown them. Same for the ground area in front of the hive itself, I have concrete pavers there and the bees often get stuck upside dwn (wings trapped on the wet pavers), They trash until they die exhausted unless I rescue them with a small twig. :-) I'm thinking of putting a rain roof over the top of the hive box to divert water to the rear of the hive.
More coming as I think of them . . .


Third time lucky

The story of how a swarm required three attempts to settle into a new hive . . .

1. 11.30am.
I assisted Andrew to capture a small swarm which had exited a possum box at a house on Riversdale Road. I brought a brand new one box hive with 8 frames of full foundation. We generally tear some holes in the foundation as Andrew believes it will help the bees get a better feel for the space available within the hive. We didn't have time for such nicities as it was a busy day.

The swarm was neatly placed near the end of a pear tree branch. Andrew climbed onto next doors garage roof with the hive and held the stem with both hands, while I very gently cut through it. The bees were then shaken into the (strapped but empty) box and the top mat a lid placed on. The box was manhandled down to ground level and we placed it next to the house at the base of the tree, but right next to the french windows as there was a stone plinth available. We looked for a better location, since this was rather man made, but none was apparent/convenient. The bees started fanning the entrance and we bade our farewell 'till nightfall.

2. 2.30pm.
The householder called to tell us all of the bees were outside of the hive and formed a 'beard' hanging off the landing strip. I returned to the house to try again with another hive in hand. Figuring they might either dislike the inside of the box or the location, we decided I'd tear the holes in the foundation this time (see above). In fact I tore 3/4 of the foundation off the bottom of the middle three frames for good measure

Sure enough, the bees were outside but were clinging onto the stone plinth. No chance of shaking them off. I asked the owner for a small dust-pan . I very gently slid the pan under the feet of the swarm and separated them from the stone (I wish I'd taken my camera . . .) and scooped them up as a mass. They did not object and I poured them into the box. It took two full scoops to get them all.

The lid went on, the hive went back on the plinth, the bees started fanning and I departed hoping that I'd be back after dark to take the hive home.

3. 4pm
The householder called again. This time the swarm/colony had absconded and settled in a magnolia buch about 2.5m off the ground. Obviously it wasn't a foundation issue now, possibly the location of the box. We resolved to see what happened by the next morning and try again.

Next day 8am
Nice warm morning at 15 degrees C. Bees were quite inactive and still in the magnolia. Used the same hive we'd tried the day before (big holes in the foundation, but now empty of bees!). Usual story, dropped the bees into the box, probably 95% went in. Lid on and we placed the box about 1.5M off the ground behind the bush, next to a fence where it was sheltered and quite a natural setting. Some bees continued to settle in the magnolia, so I asked if we culd snip off the end of the branch and tie it to the front of the hive, which we did. This meant the fliers were attracted back to the box rather than to the bush. I figured we needed all the help we could get. No fanning at the entrance and a growing clump of bees hanging off the landing strip.

Left the garden and kept the fingers crossed. Owner called 30 minutes later: 'the bees are fanning at the entrance'.

It's now 4pm and the householder says the bees are happily buzzing in and out of the hive. Maybe the job is finally done.

Draw your own conclusions - but I resolve in future to:
  • Take a lightweight capture box for swarms in future, with maybe 3 frames only in it. This is lighter to carry around and up into trees and will give the swarm a feeling of space inside.
  • Put a few holes in the foundation to help the bees communicate as they suss out their new home.
  • Place the occupied box in a bee friendly location, where they feel at home, until night fall.
  • Try to collect swarms towards twilight where they might feel more inclined to stay inside.
Bear in mind - all of this work was conducted with full bee-suit protection . . .


18 Oct 2011

Bees in the backyard

By Sarah Kellett
G Magazine

Help local bee populations flourish by becoming a backyard bee-keeper or creating a bee-friendly garden.

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.

Backyard bee-keeping
“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.

Swot up
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.

Get equipped
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.

Obtain bees
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.

Bee care
“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.

Get registered
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.

Harvest honey
“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.”

Create candles
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.
For more info visit: www.biobees.com and www.aussiebee.com.au.

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 
  • http://www.gmagazine.com.au/features/2794/bees-backyard