Stories from the farm – a closer look at the people, the place and the bio-diversity at 5EyesFarm
Keeping Honey Bee in our Urban backyard
This story is about European honey bees in Melbourne, Australia. At 5EyesFarm we have the Asian Honey bee and several species of smaller stingless bees. See our post “Bees on the farm” for more.
And despite what you might think, urban beekeeping is relatively easy. I suppose we cheated a bit because we’ve bought our hive nucleus ready-made each time we have started a hive. This means we get a box with a colony in it and a healthy queen, honey and brood (babies already laid), pollen and nectar stored – an active health hive.
The alternatives are to either catch a swarm in the wild and make a hive from them or to create a hive from an existing hive and raise queens. This is far more technical and a bit down the track, particularly as we are managing urban hives and this is restricted in Victoria to a maximum of 2 hives per yard. As urban beekeepers, we are registered with the department of [Agriculture and primary industries].
It is relatively easy and very rewarding keeping European honey bees in Melbourne inner suburbs. There is plenty for them to feed on and to drink, pollen to collect and nectar to turn into honey. Elsewhere in Victoria, it can get tough at times during depending on weather, how early or late major trees flower in the season with the result of hives needing supplementing.
Beyond Australia, hives are generally subject to the dangerous Varroa virus that is causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and threatening the European bee populations mainly in Europe and America. People are working hard everywhere to combat this. The most recent development [using mushrooms can be found here].
**Bees are really amazing.**
A beehive is truly a super organism, living and working as one mind, one soul with one purpose. If for no other reason a hive is great to keep just to watch and see how they go about their daily business. But there is much more going on behind the scenes when it comes to the inner workings of a bee colony. They have capabilities that are mind-boggling.
Somehow the hive organises so that worker bees (all girls) variously serve as nurse bees, foraging bees, morgue bees, defence bees, air-conditioning regulator bees and other functions during their 40-day lives. They are hard-working only taking brief naps by putting their heads inside empty cells for short periods (presumably for a bit of peace and quiet).
The Hardest working girl is the queen – laying up to 2000 eggs a day in mid-summer. The boys (drones) don’t do much generally but eat – take a flight to a drone congregation nearby (like a boy’s club in the air, like going to the pub) and wait for maiden queens to fly through, so they can hopefully mate.
The drones fate does not have a happy ending. If they succeed in mating they die and brutal death having their genitals ripped out in mid-flight they come crashing to the ground in agony and pass from this world. If they fail to mate they die a different kind of brutal death. The girls in the hive eat their wings off and throw them out into the cold to die after crawling around in circles for hours.
Halfway through their lives the busy workers switch from hive duties and go out foraging. Foraging can mean flying anywhere in a 5-10 KM radius in pursuit for pollen and nectar – but where they go for their stock within this radius is very specific and almost predetermined by the supermen of the hive (which is not the queen by the way).
Navigation bees are responsible for discovering supply options, and then they come back to the hive and communicate exactly where the pollen and nectar sources are. They do this by dancing! This is called the Waggle Dance. [See here for more].
Bees are industrious and make honey, wax, propolis and royal jelly. They design and build their hives. They rear babies, drones (lazy boys) and new queens. And they work symbiotically as a collective to achieve the future of their hive, their species (this is the one mind of the super organism – the whole hive working together with its own special [beespeakese]).
We determine to respect the hive process and help it flourish by not using any pesticides or herbicides and by taking care to only take small amounts of bee produce, so they always have plenty to live on and thrive.
We can use wax to make things like wax/oil linen cloths for preserving foods; wax for painting ([encaustic]); wax for making candles, for sealing preserves and general use. Propolis is highly sought after as a superfood and healing agent. We don’t extract this as 2 or 3 European Honey Beehives don’t produce much propolis overall. Same with royal jelly which is used by the bees to raise their young and create their queens.
Oh, there is so much more to tell Bees dream, and they have memories. They see in ultraviolet, and they have incredible built-in GPS systems. Theirs is a world of production and efficiency, and they are subtle and definite about what they are here for; to reproduce and sustain their kind, and how they live by working together and creating a safe, effective home for themselves and their offspring.
It is surprising how many people find it scary to have bees in their gardens and leave it at that. [Gardens flourish] when bees are around and often fail when they are not. It has been great for our garden, and we have prolific and abundant harvests largely because of the bee populations. Even with the occasional sting and a bit of an itchy rash, it is really no big deal compared to the amazing journey of actually hosting these incredible creatures.
Yep, they are incredible. They lift huge weights and work together to overcome obstacles. They beard the hive to cool it down, and they huddle to heat it up. They help each other and keep things clean as well. The work together to overcome enemies of the hive-like wasps protecting the hive (not the queen as such, but the colony).
Bees need us to keep an eye. In Australia, it might be that due to the weather, the trees are really late to flower and this can mean that colonies don’t survive – not enough pollen to make food after overwintering and running out of stock). They must have honey to survive and beekeepers can make up emergency food supplements with sugar. Having good clean water close by is vital too.
Our very own BlueBee Honey…
We find that the aquaponics is good for this in the backyard. Most importantly hives need to be inspected regularly for pests and parasites. The greater wax moth had a serious go at us and so do hive beetles for which we have installed special trays that make the fall through and not get up into the hive as much. In this way, it is difficult to understand how a plug & play beehive model can work unless it too is being carefully opened and often inspected during Spring and Summer.
We are always learning about bees. There is a good deal to understand and it is cool being connected to networks and other beekeepers in Melbourne and elsewhere and doing the odd course. I recently did a course with Benedict Hughes from [CERES] on ‘queening’ and in the early days, I did my introductory course with Robert from in East Brunswick.
“We plod along learning as we go and with each step, there is a little grow”
We might try these Asian Red Dwarf bees (below) on the farm in Java. They are small and easy to look after, and they will help with pollination. Check-in here for more on our Bees n the Farm story.
Asian red dwarf honey bee Apis florea
See our stories on stingless bees and bee farming in Java, Indonesia.