On the 17th of October, 2012, my husband and I became amateur beekeepers. We bought some safety equipment, some beekeeping tools, 2 established hives and voila, we were beekeepers. They have been a great addition to our lives and even helped lead us to the farm. They pollinate our vegetables, provide us healthy-honey, give us wax for candles and propolis that may or may not have some amazing health benefits. They are quite the package!
Before taking possession of the bees, I knew very little about how to care for them. Frank and I joined the local beekeeping club and attended one of their open days then decided to go for it. Once I had the bees in my backyard, I gave myself a crash course in beekeeping with a lot of reading both online (there’s a world of information out there) and in books (yes, real paper and ink).
To be honest, keeping bees in Sydney is a piece of cake. We don’t have varroa mite (long may that statement remain true), the climate is kind (it’s a rare day when the bees can’t leave their hive) and the bees really just want a nice, quiet box in a nice, sheltered spot to live – they take care of everything else. Their food source is so good here all year round that we generally don’t need to feed them through winter. Easy peasy!
Easy but not free from all concern (and work). There are a few things we Sydney beekeepers have to worry about. We need to help our bees keep the small hive beetle in check. We do this with simple, plastic beetle traps that have holes big enough to allow beetles to crawl in but not big enough for bees to squeeze through. The traps have vegetable oil in them and the beetles drown. There are 2 types, ones that hang between the frames inside the hive and ones that slide under the bottom board (which has slots cut into it). This solution has worked really well for us. We did try another trap that beetles are supposed to get stuck on but we didn’t like that as well. Neither require chemicals which is great – we’re managing our colonies without chemicals. We may not be able to stop our bees from flying into a neighbour’s flower that’s been sprayed with something nasty, but we can avoid adding poisons to their home (as long as we don’t have varroa mites anyway).
Fast forward to today and we live on a farm with an apiary that has 20-30 hives (depending on the time of year, the swarm situation and the health of the colonies). We check our hives about every 2 weeks during their active season (August to May) and maybe every few weeks in the off-season, just to make sure everyone’s happy. Of course we walk into the apiary on an almost daily basis, it’s only 50 metres from our back door and so we can easily keep an eye on the bees and get a sense for how they’re doing.
The only other thing we have to do is harvest honey. If we don’t, they’ll swarm. They just keep accumulating and accumulating until their supers are full.
As I learn and enjoy my new hobby-cum-passion, I’ll post about my bees. I will always (or, when I remember anyway) categorise these kinds of posts as “bees” so finding them is easier. I love comments from other beekeepers so feel free to leave a note here or on individual posts. Here’s hoping we learn from each other and do our little bit to keep the honey bee alive as their global populations are under threat from mites, pesticides and monoculture.
How refreshing was your post! I’d like to open by saying that I have read with great interest and amazement ‘The Honey Spinners’ written by Grace Pundyk. It opened my eyes to the massive intervention we have had on the bee population. With the Chinese and Capalano honey combining with New Zealand’s unethical redistribution of sell sub standard, treated and diluted product, we as consumers are not told the true story. It’s a great read, using the bees as the main theme, it’s a travelogue and adventure as well. Bees are unquestionably under threat throughout the world for many reasons but fortunately around here they seem to be flourishing. My wife and I have 1.7 acres in the Gold Coasts Hinterland, tucked away from ‘people’ and noise, but only 8 minutes from David Jones front door. (My wife teases me with that one all the time). You would never know you were so close to civilization, it truly is a wonderful and amazing plot of ground with numerous colorful and noisey birds, wallabies, kangaroos, koalas, bandicoots, hares and the inevitable possums, with tropical plants that abound in rich reds, yellows and greens. But I have noticed a clear absence of bees here. There are native bees but I was hoping to work with a colony of bees and harvest their stocks of honey. There is plenty of honey around here at $6.00 a kilo, So there must be plenty of bees, just not in our backyard. This honey is local honey and not repackaged. We buy it from the farmer and you can see the residue from when it was spun, thick and golden with varying flavors from season to season, crystallizing through the colder months, adding the final guarantee that it is not commercially reproduced. I want to get a hive, maybe two if that is what is required. I have a place to put them and I have always been interested in them. I can buy a hive for $350 with bees, but I am concerned about buying the wrong type and possibly an infected, old or sick hive from a farmer that simply wants to get rid of some old stock – I simply wouldn’t know what I was buying. Do you have any advice on how to pick a swarm or queen? Do they regenerate their own stocks with a hive lasting forever, or is there a time frame for each hive? I am really pleased I came across your site, thank you for your posts and I love the free flowing manner in which you write.
All the very best, Kerry and Jacque.
Kerry and Jacque,
My first 2 pieces of advice are: a) Join a local beekeeping club. They can answer a lot of your questions, show you a working hive and maybe even help you get started by providing a swarm. I hope there is one in your area. b) Go to your local library and get out every book they have on bees (if they’re like mine, there are a few, but not an overwhelming number) and read. You’ll get good advice, warnings and a variety of opinions. Like everything else in this world, beekeepers have friendly disagreements about the “best” way to keep bees.
All that said, the internet is another great way to learn and I’ll give you some of my own opinions that might even turn out to be good ones 🙂
The Gold Coast Hinterland is beautiful. Don’t they call it “the green beyond the gold”? I heard that ages ago. You are in a great location if you want to keep native bees but they aren’t very good honey producers. They do store honey for their young but the way they build their combs and store their honey mean you have to destroy part of the hive to extract their honey. A tricky business if you ask me. Here in the Sydney basin it’s a bit cold for native honeybees and so they never store surplus for beekeepers to rob. If you want honey, European Honeybees are the way to go.
$350 for a hive full of bees sounds like a reasonable price. I got started by buying 2 established hives and they were fantastic. No disease, strong and full of honey – I harvested 50 kgs in the first month from my 2 hives! I’ve heard warnings that you can get a diseased hive that way and I am sure that’s true but I suspect most people sell good hives. I’m not sure how to advise you to tell the difference if you are just starting. My best advice is to talk to the person selling the bees and get a feeling for how they hives have been cared for, how much honey they produce, how old the queen is… You may not know if the answers are “right” but you might be able to tell if the person selling their hives has cared for them and seems honest. That’s my approach anyway.
There are 2 other options for starting up beekeeping: 1) You can buy all new gear from a local bee supply shop (or online) including bees. The price isn’t much different to the $350 you’re talking about but it normally takes a year for the colony to get strong enough to produce surplus honey. This also isn’t something you normally do in winter – though maybe in your area it doesn’t matter. Probably the people who would sell you the gear could advise you there. 2) You can buy all new gear from your local bee supply shop (or online) and wait for your local bee club to offer you a swarm. I’m pretty sure all bee clubs capture swarms and give them to members. Spring is swarming season so, like with the point above, you probably can’t do that now. And it will likely take them a year to build up to produce honey – though maybe not. The swarm will be free saving you about $90 but there is an additional risk – the queen is likely old (she can be replaced for about $25) and the colony could be diseased. It’s pot luck there.
As for a hive lasting forever and regenerating itself – the short answer is “generally yes”. A colony will replace its queen when the time is right (the old queen is ill, old, not laying well or the colony is so successful that it wants to split via a swarm). This can happen without the beekeeper ever knowing (many beekeepers mark their queens so they can see if the colony has replaced her). A queen will live for about 5 years but she might be replaced long before old age gets her. Worker bees live about 6 weeks so they are constantly replaced. Basically every couple of months all the bees are new in a hive besides the queen. This is why a colony of bees is referred to as a “super-organism”. Each bee (even the queen) can bee replaced but the whole colony can live on.
One last piece of advice, I would recommend starting with 2 hives. This is what I did, mainly on a whim, and it turned out invaluable. If you have 2 hives you have something to compare your hive to. Is the activity in front of the hive less because of a seasonal change, food variations or is there a problem in your hive? And a 2nd hive can help save a weak hive – you can move frames of brood (bee eggs & larvae) or honey between hives in case one hive is in trouble. I’ve used this technique to save or strengthen hives and am glad to have “spares” on hand.
Finally, $6 per kilo for local honey is WAY TOO CHEAP. The going rate for generic honey at the big supermarkets is more like $10/kg for Australian honey. I hope the people you’re buying your honey from raise their prices to the real value of good, raw, local honey – it’s a magical commodity and shouldn’t be dumped on the market to compete with Chinese imports.
If you have more questions, feel free to post here or email me. I’m happy to help and I’d love to know if you do take up this amazing hobby. I’m a bit bee mad and I hope that never changes 🙂