What can be a sweeter temptation to become a beekeeper than your very own homemade honey? For one, having your own colony pollinate your fruit and vegetable garden. According to Greenpeace, 90% of the nutritious food we eat needs pollinators to survive. And if we think beyond our own backyards, healthy bee numbers are incredibly important for food production – if the ecosystem is disturbed, the results could be catastrophic. So, what do you need to know if you’re thinking about donning the white suit?
Ask Doug Purdie. You could call Doug a beekeeping master. He perches beehives over places like restaurants and hotels, and even the Royal Botanic Gardens has some of his hives. We asked Doug to explain the difference between bees and pollinators and the importance of natural habitats. Doug’s tips show that no matter where you live, if you have a rooftop or courtyard space, you could have your very own honeypot.
Is ‘pollinator’ just another word for ‘bee’?
No! While bees are the most famous pollinators (Australia has over 1,600 native species), other insects keep plants and flowers reproducing too, including wasps, flies, moths and butterflies. Even some cockroaches are pollinators.
Why are they important for the environment?
Pollinators are vital to our ecosystem. Pollination by insects is really important to our native flora like eucalypts, angophoras and tea trees – and anything that flowers. Bees especially are incredibly important for agriculture – one third of the human food supply comes from crops that are dependent on bees. Crops vary in how much they rely on pollination by bees. Some crop industries, such as cherries, apples, almonds, are almost entirely dependent on it.
I am thinking about becoming a bee keeper. What do I do?
- First up, learn about bees. It’s really important to understand the bees in order to manage a hive. Consider native bees. Buy a local book, attend a bee course or join a local club. A quick Google search should show you all the local clubs in your area.
- You don’t need council approval to own a beehive in the City of Sydney, but if you want to keep European honey bees, you do need to register your hive with the NSW Department of Primary Industries. They also have bee keeping guidelines. No registration is required for native bees.
- You’ll need bees and beekeeping equipment. There are stores in outer Sydney that can sell you everything. You can also source your bees by talking to beekeepers in your local club, who can assist with collecting a bee swarm.
- Save your pennies. Your basic bee setup will depend on the type of bees you choose. For European honey bees, you will need a bee suit, gloves, smoker, hive tool and brush, along with the hive. All of this costs around $900. Native bees cost approximately $500. The honey you get is also different. Expect to yield around 100 kilos of honey from European hives, which can be sold to quickly recover the set up costs. Native hives will possibly produce 500g of honey in a year.
- Choose a site. This is the hardest part. I wouldn’t recommend putting a beehive on your balcony in the city unless you had a bee keeper have a look first. You really want the hive away from passing people. Sometimes a rooftop works or a backyard, no matter how small. All bees have specific needs. Native bees require more shade and less wind than European honey bees. Ask your supplier for information about your bees’ needs.
- What now? Once you have your hive set up, bees pretty much look after themselves. They find their own food, flying up to 8 kilometres from the hive to do so. It’s your responsibility to provide a water source for European honey bees though, so place them in close range to a bird bath or pond. All bees, insects and birds will benefit from your water source.
- It’s harvest time! To understand how to harvest correctly, take a course or research online. Make sure that when choosing your course, you distinguish between European honey bees and native bees, as the hive management for these is very different. With European bees, you should check the hive about every three weeks during summer to harvest the honey and make space for the hive to grow.
- Learn how to manage a swarm. As a beekeeper, a key thing to research is how to manage your hive to minimise swarming. This naturally occurs when the hive splits to make a second hive. The bee swarm contains about half the bees and the old queen – all heading off to look for a new home. On a positive note, bees are at their most passive when swarming as they have no home to defend.
I’m not ready! How can I find more info or just learn more about pollinators?
Come along to our workshops and learn how to keep native stingless bees for fun, honey production, conservation or pollination.
12 to 19 November is Australian Pollinator Week – the website is a great place to find resources and events in your area.
If all this seems too hard, you can support bees by growing bee-friendly plants, using less insecticide/having a chemical-free garden and buying local honey from a farmers market.