Like bees around a hive

LIKE BEES around a hive, people swarm when a workshop in beekeeping is offered.

That was the scene on a Wednesday in early winter when a total of 19 people gathered in Randwick Community Centre's new classroom on the village green to join Doug Purdie and native bee specialist, Elke Haege for a workshop about our striped friends. Doug operates a small business, The Urban Beehive, producing Sydney urban honey sold by the suburb where his hives are located. There's something unique about eating Surry Hills honey, The Rocks honey, Lane Cove Honey, Parramatta honey, Marrickville honey and the rest.

Why bees?

Why bees? What is it about these small, buzzing, flying creatures that attracts people?

I can't account for the recent upsurge in interest in beekeeping. Doug says that the collapse of beekeeping overseas has a lot to do with it, with only the Isle of Man and Australia free of the disease that has decimated the US and other country's beekeeping industries. My guess is that beekeeping is seen as something more that home and community gardeners can do to increase the food productivity of their gardens. And, as Doug emphasised, a hive of bees in the garden improves the pollination of your garden and that of others, too, for honeybees can travel kilometres to feed.

Those attending the workshop were a female dominated group. There were only three men. This can partly be put down to it being a work day, however the gender breakup is typical of other workshops and courses at the Sustainability Hub (as the community education component at Randwick Community Centre is known), including those offered on weekends. Ideas on why this is so have been offered, however there has been no really convincing explanation. It is not really a problem as I see it, believing that those who turn up are the right people. The age range at the workshop was late twenties to seventies, typical, again, of attendance at other workshops and courses.

Intrigued

Doug Purdie demonstrates honey extraction.

Doug Purdie demonstrates honey extraction.

Doug and Elke kept people intrigued with explanation, description, question and answers and demonstration through the workshop. One demonstration that proved popular was on separating honey from the timber frames the honeycomb occupies, the frames being slotting into the wooden beehive. The opportunity to taste this raw honey was a highlight. Doug also provided examples of beekeepers' protective clothing, a smoker used to deter bees when extracting the honeycomb frames and a beehive, bee brush and hive tool.

He discussed the different types of hive including the warre and the new flowhive. People buying the flowhive, a type of self-draining hive that this year sought crowdfunding and was oversubscribed, might not understand they still have maintenance to do and need authoritative advice about situating and installing it.

The workshop was full of interesting information:

  • there is one species of honey bee in Australia, Apis Mellifera
  • bees take pollen from flowers and cross-pollinate other flowers when they land on them; they have structural adaptations to carry pollen from flower to flower and use pollen as protein and nectar as carbohydrate
  • apples, cherries and almonds are completely dependent on bee pollination
  • according to Elke, who breeds native bees and sells them and the hives they live in, not all of Australia's 2000 species of native bees are stingless; the amount of honey they produce is minimal; in the wild they live in cavities in trees where they find good insulation to regulate temperature
  • native bees can be housed in a hive on an apartment balcony
  • the bumble bee introduced to pollinate greenhouse vegetables in Tasmania is not found on the mainland and would be an undesirable species here
  • honey bees were introduced to Australia in 1822 and did well in pollinating native plants although they did not co-evolve with them; honey bees won't pollinate all native flowers just as native bees won’t pollinate all vegetable flowers, such as the cucurbit family; because native bees coevolved with native plants they have specialised structures for extracting food from those plants, such as their tongue, that are adapted to particular plant species
  • the belief that honey and native bees compete is common but erroneous; "Honeybees generally ignore natives", said Doug; honey and native been can be kept in proximity; both types are housed in the apiary near the classroom at Randwick Community Centre and are managed by a bee association that will offer a number of free workshops during the year
  • the native, blue banded bee lives in the ground and the males sleep on the branches of small shrubs
  • a honey bee hive may have up to 8000 bees in residence
  • the African tulip tree, sometimes planted as an ornamental, is toxic to all bees.
Doug Purdie demonstrates honey extraction

Doug Purdie demonstrates honey extraction

Bee-friendly gardens

Wasps, which are carnivorous, are a predator of bees. Assassin bugs, the small hive beetle and the syrphid fly are pests of hives. Add to these threats the large areas of monocultural, flower and bee food-free lawn, council plantings of non-flowering ornamental plants, paving and the use by gardeners, councils and bushland regenerators of the herbicide, glyphosate, and you get an idea of the challenges facing beekind.

No need to get depressed about it, though. Doug says that we can bring bees of all kinds into our cities by avoiding excessive lawn and paving and by planting a diversity of flowering plants.

"You need both sorts of bees, honeybees and native bees".

"Plant your gardens with stuff for all of them".

Doug recommends tying together short lengths of bamboo to provide nesting opportunities not only for native bees but for a diversity of insects, what have become popularly known as 'insect hotels'. These, said Elke, need to be around 15cm long.

It is important to obtain authoritative assistance in locating and installing hives, said Doug. A home would need only one hive assuming an average honey production of around 50kg a year.
"I got 70kg in one of my Centennial Park hives", Doug said.

"We extracted 170kg of honey from our hives yesterday. Honey production is seasonal and is affected by the weather.

“Bees will travel five to eight kilometres from the hive to find food. A single hive can have up to a 50 square kilometre coverage”.

This foraging range brings into question the authenticity of honey certified as 'organic'. Perhaps the certification refers only to the extraction and processing components of honey production, as there is no way of knowing that the flowers the bees feed on over their extensive range are organically grown. Perhaps 'wild harvested' would be a more honest marketing label, although there is no certification scheme covering this.

Elke

Elke with one of the native beehives she produces.

Functions, yields

A function is something that an organism does. When it comes to bees, that function is pollination. It is a by-product, an adaptation of the co-evolution of plants and animals that benefits both. It is what we call 'mutualism'. Both benefit.

It's something like enlightened self-interest, a win-win arrangement for bee and flower. Flowers attract bees, bees cross-pollinate flowers. Bees take back to the hive as food what plants offer in this mutualistic arrangement — nectar and pollen. And there's that third party benefiting from nature's mutualism — the people who provide accommodation for bees and who collect and eat the honey the bees so kindly provide.

A yield is something or direct use to people. When it comes to bees, we benefit through their yield of:

  • honey — which is food to bees, too, and has antibiotic as well as nutritional properties
  • pollen — a product of the flowers that bees visit and that they distribute
  • wax — excreted by bees as a liquid that hardens into a construction material for hive building; wax is a hydrocarbon that burns cleanly and is used to make candles
  • propolis — a derivative of tree resin and an antibiotic processed as a tincture in alcohol
  • royal jelly — a hive product that Doug says raises ethical issues in harvesting
  • bee venom — used in cosmetics to remove wrinkles in human skin; extraction of the product raises ethical issues around the use of electricfied floors, contact with which by the bee causes it to emit the venom that is harvested.

Bees, gardens and our new nature

This was an information-filled workshop with plenty of questions from participants. With their years of working with bees and managing them as a livelihood, Doug and Elke provided such demystifying and authoritative information that some participants wanted to go on to do Doug's full-day intensive workshop for those serious about becoming beekeepers.

Sitting in the class making notes, it occurred to me that the way Doug and Elke spoke of integrating both honey and native bees, native and exotic plant species including food plants, was to describe not only the type of gardens we need but the integrative mentality we also need now that we are entering the age of the Anthropocene — the age of humankind when humanity's influence on the Earth's biogeophysical systems is so great that it becomes controlling.

It is by moving away from the old mentality that divided plants into native, exotic and food — and that treats animals the same way — that we can create recombinant urban ecosystems that better fit the emerging conditions, and make our already-biodiverse cities even more so by creating habitat, including that suitable to native and honey bees. This is a step towards a new gardening... towards gardening in the Anthropocene... gardening that combines all suitable plants and animals — both domestic and wildlife — into our new nature.

The Urban Beehive: http://theurbanbeehive.com

Courses and workshops at Randwick Community Centre are listed seasonally by City East Community College: http://cityeastccresources.wikispaces.com/City+East+Community+College

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