Why our suburbs are sweetly abuzz

Caitlyn Hurley reports on the rapid growth in urban beekeeping  

A honey bee clings to a borage flower: Caitlyn Hurley

If you’ve picnicked in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, swum laps at Manly Beach or walked quietly through Rookwood Cemetery, chances are you may have passed one of The Urban Beehive’s drones on his way to work. There are thousands of these busy male bees in each hive, where they perform a vital role in the making of, on average, 50 kilograms of honey each season.

Vicky Brown and Doug Purdie started The Urban Beehive in Sydney’s southern suburbs six years ago, and have watched increasing numbers of people embrace the pastime by starting their own hives or becoming voluntary beekeepers.

“When Doug and I first started, we had six people in each class,” says Ms Brown.” Now we do classes every fortnight during the spring and summer time and we have 12 people in each group … They always sell out and the number of interested people seems to be growing.”

For her and Mr Purdie, the honey is simply a bonus of  their work to educate fellow apiarists and also relocate bees which would otherwise be killed off.

“Most of our hives have been populated by catching swarms in the city and suburbs, and we do that every year. People call us out and we go and catch them. Sometimes we sell them back on to people who have done our courses … Swarming is a natural process of the bees.”

Australia is the only country where bee populations have escaped the varroa mite, a parasite that clings to the outside of the bee and gives it a condition called varrosis. The mite only reproduces in bee colonies, and can weaken and eventually kill off entire hives.

Australia is also fortunate in having the majority of its crops pollinated by wild beehives.

“Particularly in America and Europe, pollination services are really expensive agriculture and it’s quite a hardworking industry for the bees,” says Ms Brown. “They really get pushed to their limits, especially with chemicals. In Australia we don’t have that kind of culture with beekeeping, and we are also incredibly lucky not to have varroa.”

Pests aren’t the only things beekeepers have to worry about when it comes to keeping their bees safe and productive.

“This year was really hard for us. On average, we do three to four harvests in the season, but because it was very dry in certain parts of the year, there wasn’t enough rain. You need a lot of rain for the trees to yield nectar, so even though we see the trees flowering, you won’t necessarily see those flowers nectaring. We only got half the amount of honey we normally would.”

If you ask any beekeeper or any bee admirer, though, they will tell you the positives far outweigh any stresses.

Wildflowers in the Royal Botanic Gardens: Caitlyn Hurley

“When I started growing veggies on my balcony almost ten years ago, I had no idea how far I would take it, or how much joy would really come of it,” says Indira Naidoo, author of The Edible Balcony and her latest book The Edible City.

“It’s really exciting to see urban beehives are growing in population and popping up all over the city,” she says. “We currently have four beehives at Wayside Chapel gardens [in Sydney’s inner-east], each with around 60,000 bees inside working hard to produce honey and pollinate all the different edible plant varieties we have.”

More than 50 varieties of fruit, herbs and vegetables are grown in the gardens, helping to feed the area’s homeless.

“I think bees are really underestimated in terms of how vital they are to our agricultural industry, and to backyard growers alike,” says Ms Naidoo. “They have such an important role to play in the pollination stage.”

Mark Page, Head of Biosecurity with the Amateur Beekeepers Association of NSW, is similarly passionate about bees.

He first came across them at the age of eight, when he stole a chunk of honeycomb from next door’s hive.

“I left a very obvious fist-sized hole right in the middle of a frame, so of course the beekeeper went and had a stern chat with my parents,” says Mr Page. He was sent to work for the beekeeper to repay his debt, and began to develop a love of beekeeping.

Today he has a dozen hives of his own and often enters honey and wax into prizes.

An urban beekeeper at work: Caitlyn Hurley

With food security a big issue, amid climate change and a growing population, it’s sobering to realise that one-third of fresh food needs bees during the pollination stage of production. That means healthy bees are vital.

Conjuring up a world without bees, Mr Page paints a bleak picture of near-empty greengrocers and diets with far less nutrition. “Carrots, onions, citrus, all of your fruits, blueberries is a big one …  It’s obvious the link is there in terms of lifting production.”

Australia’s billion-dollar almond industry relies almost entirely on bees for pollination. So, no honey bees, no nuts.

Mr Page works with the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program, which expends great efforts to keep varroa out of Australian hives. The mites “destroy entire colonies of bees quite quickly – not just beehives, but our wild colonies too,” he says. – @caitlyn_hurley, editing by Kathy Marks