The sweet life
“If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live,” said Albert Einstein… allegedly. You see, this quote is regularly attributed to the German-born genius, however there’s no hard evidence he actually ever said it. Disbelievers argue Einstein was more interested in the theory of relativity than entomology – the study of insects – while believers hold onto the idea that it is exactly the sort of prescient postulation he would have made. Regardless of who said what, the real matter on the table, in a climate where global bee populations are dwindling, is its veracity. Is it true that that the loss of bees would herald the end of life as we know it?
It would certainly mean the end of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cherries on Christmas Day, macadamia and almond milk lattes, your cotton underwear and that steak on the barbie, as the honey bee can make or break not only our food supply, but the lifecycle of the crops we grow for fabric and cattle feed. The tiny bee has a huge role in maintaining the biodiversity of the world’s ecosystem – it’s no wonder she is so busy.
Colonies in Europe and the USA experience a 30% die-off each year caused by a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, or CDD, which is a perfect storm of pesticide use and habitat loss from monoculture, disease and the deadly bee parasite called the varroa mite. Despite this, there is reason to bee happy, especially if you are a bee Down Under.
“Bees in Australia, they’re the luckiest bees in the world,” says apiarist Vicky Brown, co-founder of Sydney’s The Urban Hive. Australia is the last varroa-free safe haven on the planet, and an easy place for bees to exist in the wild. This makes biosecurity a huge issue to protect our colonies, says Brown. “We have large wild populations of bees that pollinate our major crops unlike in Europe and North America, where they rely on migratory beekeepers to bring their hives into almond orchards, for example, because there are no wild or ‘feral’ bees left to do the job.”
The honeybee is responsible for the pollination of more than 90 fruit and vegetable crops worldwide – about one-third of our total food crops – everything from blueberries to avocados, cotton and zucchini. After drought, pesticides are the next biggest threat to Aussie bees. In the USA, the chemicals used on commercial crops of almond and canola pose a serious threat to bees, but here in Australia it’s pesticide use in suburban areas, says Brown, things like Round-Up and citrus sprays. “Australia has some of the healthiest honey bees in the world, we can keep it this way if we stop spraying at home and do not allow ourselves to get to the USA level of agricultural pesticide use,” she says.
The locavore and maker movements in food have led to a renaissance in beekeeping as we are reconnecting with the seasons and more concerned than ever about where our food comes from. Hives are now an intrinsic part of many restaurants, from Kylie Kwong and Colin Fassnidge’s rooftop hives in inner-Sydney to the honey produced at regional dining destinations such as The Farm and Harvest on the NSW far-north coast, and Shannon Bennett’s Burnham Beeches property, which provides honey for his Melbourne CBD fine-diner Vue de Monde.
“It’s a useful skill for a chef to learn,” says Fassnidge, who explains he has native bees at home so he can teach his two daughters about the circle of life. “If the bee doesn’t pollinate the vegies, you’re not going to have any food for the animals. And without animals and vegetables, we’re not left with much to cook with are we?”
The lifecycle of the bee is so fragile that it can only be conceived, born and reared within a tight window that depends on temperature, the position of the sun and season. In fact, the day of the virgin princess bee’s nuptial flight, where she will mate with male drone bees in the sky to become the egg-laying queen, must be warm, sunny and windless. This flight must occur within 20 days of her being born or she cannot become fertile, and once fertilised, the hive must be kept between 33ºC-34ºC if she is to even lay the eggs. The pressure! Bees may be hard workers, but adaptable they are not and the precision required for their livelihood is being threatened by climate change, increasing pesticide use –which affects their memory and navigating ability – and imported honey in the mix.
Brown says the best thing you can do to support Aussie bees and beekeepers is to buy local honey and leave foreign products such as honey, beeswax, bee pollen and royal jelly out of Australia. She recommends sourcing from local farmers’ markets, IGA supermarkets, local bee clubs and urban operations such as her own. It sounds simple, but Brown says that most commercial brands of supermarket honey are blended using imported honey, making it hard for local producers to compete with cheaper prices. New labelling laws that came not effect last July require all jars to disclaim the place of origin, so look for ‘100% product of Australia’.
Perhaps what Einstein meant to say was that bees are the canaries of the environment. While we may be able to outlive them, we’ll be stuck eating non-pollinated plants such as potatoes, in a world without almonds, cotton or cherries, or worse, be paying inflated prices for hand-pollinated apples, as is happening in China where native bees have disappeared. From the food we eat to the clothes on our back, bees are vital to humans because they affect the many chains of existence we are entangled in. “It goes beyond the honey when it comes to how crucial bees are,” says Brown.
How you can help
FLOWER POWER Australians love lawns, but Doug Purdie, co-founder of The Urban Beehive, says the best way to help bees is to “plant things that flower”. They love lavender, borage, flowering gum, bottle brush, grevillia, rosemary, sage and basil. In fact, anything purple and blue.
STOP SPRAYING After drought, pesticides in urban areas is the biggest threat to bees.
CREATE A BUZZ Because of our mild winters, bees don’t hibernate, unless they’re in an area that gets snow. This means they require nectar all year round, so choose a mix of plants that will flower each season, especially in late winter and early spring when hives are running low on honey and nectar is scarce.
BUILD A BEE HOTEL “Not everyone can become a beekeeper, but you can attract native bees to your garden with a bee hotel,” says Brown, who says that out of the 1500 or so native bee species in Australia, only two are social. “Bee hotels are great for native bees as they prefer this solitary ‘apartment’ set-up as opposed to the social ‘share-house’ feel of a large hive.” You can make a bee hotel from a cored brick filled with tubes of bamboo, or an untreated log with holes drilled into it to create cells for the bees to nest in. Position out of the wind, sun and rain, with a nearby water source or ‘bee bath’. Bees can drown easily, so place a tile or rock in the bee bath, so they have a landing. You can buy pre-made bee hotels from garden shops and online.
LIQUID ASSETS The Urban Beehive runs one-day beginner and advanced beekeeping courses in Sydney’s Centennial Park. In Victoria, Melbourne City Rooftop Honey offers short workshops and has a genius off-site hive adoption program where you can sponsor a hive in return for a share of the liquid gold delivered to your door. A cheaper option still, is to visit your local bee club for a taster (locate them through the Amateur Beekeeper’s Association in your state).