Published in Warrandyte Diary
I am standing as far away as it is possible to be while still being able to use the zoom on my camera. I ask beekeeper David Hopday if it is a safe enough distance. “You should be right … as long as you can run,” he laughs.
After sticking an ungloved hand into a hive full of bees and around which bees are swarming (rather menacingly, I think), David decides I need a closer look. We are not wearing facial protection, but he picks up one of the bee-covered boards from the colony, walks up to me and indicating the part that is oozing with honey, says, “Stick your finger in there.” “No, thank you,” I manage. “Go on, it’s beautiful – nectar of the Gods,” he urges. I hold my ground – impressed that I have gone this far without stimulating those fear pheromones (about which he warned me earlier) that cause bees to sting.
David is in his element and shares his knowledge of beekeeping with enthusiasm. He has several hives in Warrandyte and quite a few in surrounding areas, and produces about three to four tonnes of honey a year. His label Heavenly Honey, which he describes as “the nearest thing to Godliness”, is also Warrandyte’s biggest bee-keeping business.
The Rural Industries, Research and Development Corporation reports that annual honey production in Australia is between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes, of which about 4,600 is exported. Most of this is produced from native flora.
Apiculture goes back to the pharaohs and still-edible honey has been found buried in Egyptian tombs.
Of course, honeybees don’t just make honey, they pollinate about 90 per cent of our edible crops and a third of the human diet. As well, many animals (including livestock) are dependent on bees for their food supply. There is currently a worldwide bee shortage due to a phenomenon that causes bees to abandon their hives and die, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Australia has so far been spared, but many fear it is inevitable.
The reasons for CCD are not straightforward. The top suspects include climate change, pests, diseases, bacteria, herbicides, pesticides and electromagnetic fields, as well as combinations of these. A Harvard University study (among others) linked pesticides known as neonicotinoids (NNIs), particularly in combination with other chemicals, to declining bee populations.
Closer to home, a representative of multinational biotechnology corporation Bayer, visited The Beekeepers Club in East Doncaster last year and gave a presentation assuring members that, when used correctly, NNIs are safe for bees. Bayer and other pesticide producers point instead to the varroa mite – a parasite responsible for widespread bee losses overseas – as the chief culprit affecting bee colonies.
Environmentalists argue, however, that bees have evolved with pests over million of years and it is pesticides that lower the immune system of bees, enabling diseases and pests to take hold. They say the varroa mite’s 1980’s introduction into the United States predates that country’s dramatic bee declines, which only appeared in the last ten years, and coincide with increased use of NNI pesticides.
The European Commission has given considerable weight to the role of NNI pesticides in colony collapse disorder, and approved a ban on their use in 2013. There is no ban on their use in Australia.
Several other studies indicate a correlation between the environmental impacts of electromagnetic radiation and declining bee populations. One Swiss study found that when mobile phones were placed near hives, bees became lost and disoriented.
Ennio Torreson “has a couple of hives” in Warrandyte and likens the hobby to “crack cocaine”. “It’s a phenomenal and fascinating hobby and it’s addictive”, he admits. Ennio, who is also a member of The Beekeepers Club, says, “The bees seem to be coming back, but we’ve had two very bad seasons and many hives have been lost.”
Ennio believes that Australian apiarists “manage our bees better”, providing a longer growth season than in the United States. He explains, “On American almond plantations, bees forage constantly for about six weeks, pollinating the fields and when it’s done, they die – it’s like us feasting only on steak every day.”
Post-doctoral fellow at the CSIRO Canberra Dr John Roberts is currently conducting an Australia-wide pest and disease survey on honeybee populations. In his opinion, there is no single culprit for declining bee populations and “pests, disease, climate, chemicals and hive management all play a role”.
According to Dr Roberts, “The combined stress threshold of all these factors is too great overseas, but so far in Australia, available native flora provides a good basis for nutrition and better immune system functions.” He believes precautions need to be in place to ensure the future health of Australian honeybees as well as indigenous and feral bee colonies.
Dr Roberts cites “bee industry education, spraying regimes that take bees into account, greater investment in research and tighter regulatory procedures”, as necessary preventative steps.
Celia Cornick runs Warranwood’s Biodynamic Community Garden, which produces fruit and vegetables for disadvantaged people. The centre also offers educational programs on gardening and beekeeping.
There is an emphasis on sustainable, organic beekeeping methods and biodynamic principles for bee care. “Biodynamics work with the rhythms and phases of the living earth to help it create naturally,” explains Celia. “We introduced bee hives for pollination and we have both conventional and ‘Top Bar’ hives.
According to Celia, Top Bar hives mirror nature, as they are constructed “the way bees naturally do it”, in an oval shape – as opposed to conventional, rectangular hives. Her observation is that while the conventional hives can be temperamental and prone to illness, the oval-shaped hives “always produce”.
Celia feels strongly about our role in the future of honeybees: “It’s not fair or right to leave it up to the scientists, we all have to take part and take responsibility for these issues.”
David has given me a comprehensive tour of his Warrandyte hives and explained their complexities and variable temperaments.
In his spare time, David Hopday is also assisting an RMIT University research project. The study delves into the healing benefits of honey nectar when herbal plants, known for their medicinal attributes, are utilized in the honey making process. “The theory is that the healing qualities of certain plants, may be even better when they are used to produce honey nectar,” he explains.
The topic moves to the bee dance or ‘Waggle’ dance – a figure-eight dance performed by foraging honeybees to share information with the colony. David’s face is alight, “It’s phenomenal – we are very privileged to see it.” He goes to shake my hand and stops to wipe it on his protective jacket, “It’s a sticky business,” he says.
In The Life of the Bee, Nobel prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck wrote: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”
Honey is the only food:
- Containing natural preservatives
- With an eternal shelf life
- With every substance needed to sustain life, including enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and water
- Containing ‘pinocembrin’ – which improves brain function
- Has medicinal, therapeutic, nutritional and cosmetic value
- Is used for healing wounds and burns, acne, Fibromyalgia, menopause and is even thought to increase libido
- If placed over hot water, crystalized honey can return to its original consistency
- Have been around for millions of years
- Have a sense of smell so precise they are able to differentiate between floral varieties from metres away
- Communicate with one another by dancing