Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Living with bees

It's strange to think that winter is almost here. I'm secretly still hoping for summer to wake me up one morning and take me by surprise. Locked away in a sweaty restaurant kitchen, I think I somehow let the entire season pass by without realising and already we're nearing the end of another chilly Sydney autumn. Rust-coloured leaves are collecting underfoot and bees are getting ready to hunker down in their hives until spring.

I can't wait for spring. This year could be the one to welcome bees into the backyard! I finally made it to the natural beekeeping course run by Milkwood Permaculture in Alexandria, Sydney over a weekend with Tim Malfroy. Backyard beekeeping looks like a challenge but one that I think I'm ready for!

For Primary Production I had to choose an Australian agricultural industry and write a report about current issues and how it relates to the larger industry on a global scale. Having read a few articles about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) leading to mysterious disappearances and endemic rate of bee deaths worldwide, my topic of choice was an almost instantaneous decision.

Imagine a world without bees. 80 percent of all flowering plants rely on insect pollination of which bees play an integral role. One book that I read (I think it may have been written by Eva Crane) identified 177 different crops of which rely on insect pollination for harvest, and another 60 or so that rely on insect pollination to produce seed and reproduce.

It's really scary to think that small and sometimes innocuous actions by us can have vast and far-reaching consequences, some of which we're probably not even aware of yet. Spraying plants with chemicals is a huge no-no that has somehow managed to become normalised over the last 50 years or so.

It's just amazing to think that people used to cover candy with vibrant lead paint. They had no idea of the health consequences because science at the time was not developed enough to detect every ill effect. We scorn the idiocy of mankind in its primitive state and yet we do the very same thing today. We douse our food, the soil and insects that we need for plants to continue thriving with all sorts of toxic concoctions without completely understanding what the hell we're doing to ourselves.

Imidacloprid is just one example of the latest variety of insecticide made available in Australia. The insecticide has been banned in four European countries since 2005 but we've seem to become so blase about chemical usage that we just don't give a shit. The systemic pesticide leaches into the soil where it stays for up to 3 years after a single spray application. It enters plants through the roots and travels to every part making leaves, stems, petals, seeds, pollen and nectar toxic. It kills bees on contact and it has been said that bees have died after drinking rainwater droplets on the leaf of an affected plant.

Neonicotinoids like imidacloprid cause nervous system disorders in people, disorientation or death in bees, paralysis in birds (perhaps this explains the mysterious phenomenon of birds falling from the sky in huge numbers), liver dysfunction in dogs and a hoard of other complications. Strange then that we're spraying the stuff on everything from stone fruit to vegetables, ornamental plants and turf.

We're quite lucky in the fact that CCD has not affected Australia with the same level of destruction as seen in Europe and the United States. This could possibly be due to the lack of varroa mite (a deadly blood-sucking insect that can transfer disease and weaken bees) in Australia so far but most beekeepers fear that it is only a matter of time before it catches up with us.

If we want to give our bees the best chance at survival now and far into the future, we need to think about the effects that our everyday actions have on the nation's primary pollinators. There are so many different pest control methods that don't require synthetic chemicals at all like beer snail-catchers, soap mite sprays and simple water+molasses concoctions that wipe out caterpillars by altering their osmosis gradient through sugar and water.

When spring comes around I'll be introducing a hive of bees into my backyard (fingers crossed). They'll help pollinate your fruit, flowers, vegetables and hopefully make lots of delicious, natural honey that I can share with you, my friends; so I ask that you help me to keep them healthy and safe. The next time you're outside in the garden and you pick up that spray.. Please think about the bees.

 see more photos of natural beekeeping here..


  1. What an amazing experience and that fresh honeycomb looks so luscious!

  2. Go for it...get the bees! I set up a hive in my backyard last November and we love it. My kids are fascinated by the whole thing as well. They are such interesting little creatures. It is in lots of ways easier than I expected, but in other ways more challenging (the not knowing what I am doing plus fear of doing the wrong thing I find hardest). I am sure you will love the experience!

  3. I've put my name down for a hive in spring so I have my fingers crossed that everything goes ahead and the bees arrive safe and well! I'm going to give natural beekeeping a go (holistic management with no pollen substitutes, no chemicals, no foundation, disturbing them as little as possible) which means less honey yield but healthier bees overall. I can't wait! :)

  4. That's so cool! Are you going to plant specific flowering trees around to try and skew the flavour? And is it standard practice for beekeepers to invest in an epiPen?

  5. our property is just an average quarter-acre suburban block. apparently a busy hive in the height of summer will be populated by about 50,000 bees or more and each worker bee makes up to 200 foraging trips a day, up to 5km away so special plantings might not make any real difference to taste unfortunately. if we had a bigger property i'd definitely try it! i'll probably put in some more plants that they like just to keep them as happy as possible.

    i think investing in an epipen is a sound idea. not sure if it's standard practice.. could very well be..

  6. Great article Cathy ... and absolutely lovely photos as always!

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