One of the most fascinating creatures on Planet Earth has got to the be humble bee. It is also one of those that is most in trouble, in part due to humans. Come take a look into the wondrous world of bees, their hierarchy and what it means to be a Queen Bee. And learn more about beekeeping from The Urban Beehive's Doug Purdie and Vicky Brown.
Doug Purdie is a man who is passionate about bees. The former I.T. consultant gave up his job in marketing I.T. in 2005 for the world of beekeeping or apiary. "The whole reason why I did it was because someone needed to save the bees and bees are dying out at a huge rate," he says.
Doug and his business partner Vicky Brown's company The Urban Beehive has over 100 hives all over Sydney. He explains, "We've got hives right in the city at some hotels like the Shangrila, QT and Swiss Hotel also a couple of corporates. We've got bees at Macquarie Bank. When you're buying a jar of honey from us, you're buying it from a particular location.
The Hive Hierarchy
Just get Doug started on the subject of bees and it's fascinating. Did you know that typical bee population is made up of three types of bees: a female queen bee, female worker bees and male drone bees? The queen's job is to mate with the drones and lay about 2,000 eggs a day. The drone's sole job is to mate and while that sounds great at first, it's not what what is cracked up to be.
Doug says that drones are, "Absolutely useless around the house. They exist purely to have sex with the queen bees. That's their whole purpose in life. In fact they're so bad that they hang out in what's called "drone congregation areas around 3 o'clock in the afternoon for virgin queens to fly past. It's like the pub. When the virgin queen flies past, off they go to try and catch the queen to mate and the queen will mate with a number of drones. Until the place where she stores semen is full. She stores semen from a number of drones."
"Their penises snap off and they fall to the ground dead." He pauses, "Apparently you can hear it although I've never heard a drone's penis snapping off." The drones can't even feed themselves-the worker bees do this for them and come late Autumn Winter when there is no virgin queen to mate with, their wings are chewed off and they are dragged from the hive by the worker bees where they will die.
Contrast the drone with the all female worker bees. Doug says, "They (worker bees) do all these jobs inside the beehive and one of the last jobs they do is foraging where they collect the nectar and the water and pollen. One day...they've worn their wings out from flying so much they can't get back to the beehive and they die." I'm not sure what fate is worse, your penis snapping off or dying by working yourself to death. These hard working worker bees are said to work 24 hours a day without sleep - which is presumably where the phrase "Busy as a bee" comes from.
Apart from foraging the workers bees tend to the rest of the busy hive. They have various roles - undertaker bees remove any dead bees, nurse bees tend to the larvae, guard bees protect the hive and cleaner bees keep the hive clean. These bees live for about 5 weeks. And if you're stung by a bee, it's a worker bee.
Which brings us to the queen bee. The process of how a queen comes about is an interesting one. Somewhat randomly, one larvae is selected by the worker bees to become the queen bee. This larvae is fed a diet of royal jelly and an epigenetic reaction occurs making this bee grow larger than other bees, with a longer abdomen and shorter wings. All by the roll of a dice - the larvae could easily have become a worker bee.
Can you spot the Queen Bee among the workers? She's just to the right of Doug's thumb and has a lighter, longer abdomen
But her role is not as queenly as you might think though - the hive is a democracy and the workers vote on the actions within a hive, not the queen. And her tiny wings mean that she doesn't really fly and when she is full of eggs, she is too heavy to fly. Although the queen bee can sting humans, she doesn't although two queens will fight to the death for dominance. Hives are known to nurture another queen in the brood layer. Doug says, "The bees are pessimists. They go 'Something could go wrong with the queen we're raising so they raise a couple of them and if the first one gets eaten by a bird, they've got a second one.""
The queen bee
Busy as a Bee
For Doug and Vicky beekeeping is a seven day a week process. On Mondays and Tuesdays they collect their honey from the various hives around Sydney. From Wednesday to Saturday their factory in Mascot sells their honey and beekeeping equipment. As Spring is a big time for beekeeping, our chat is frequently paused for customers who Doug says are increasingly younger in age. He has also noticed that there is often a cross over with those that keep bees with urban chicken owners and kitchen gardeners.
They used to do markets to sell their honey but now have a good range of stockists across Sydney. Honey can also be purchased at the factory in test tube sizes, 300g jars and 1 kilo tubs. I try some of the honeys and they're all distinct and with a lovely, thicker texture. The Marrickville honey for example has an almost spice like taste and reminds me of star anise. Doug attributes that to the make up of the European and Asian population of Marrickville that grow plants and flowers in gardens to cater for family meals. But even each batch of honey can differ. Their honey is used in restaurants across Sydney - Flying Fish in Pyrmont is one that Doug mentions uses their honey in their desserts.
Beehives at Mascot factory
All of the Urban Beehive honey is raw which means all of the beneficial and medicinal properties of honey are still intact. Most supermarket honeys is ultra filtered which means it is heat treated while raw honey contains more vitamins and antibacterials as well as plant biologically active compounds (phytochemicals) like antioxidants, flavonoids, and phenolics. Non raw honey is also very finely filtered so that things such as bee pollen, propolis and honeycomb are taken out (said to help with allergies) and what results is a very liquid honey. The honey here is thicker and can candy which is a natural process that only occurs with raw honey. "That's a sign of good honey," says Doug.
Learning to be a beekeeper
Every fortnight on a Sunday Doug and Vicki hold beekeeping classes at Centennial Park where some of their hives are kept. It's a full day of tutorial and practical work where students can come away with enough knowledge to start their own beehives. Starting at 9am the first few hours go through the background knowledge and students also receive a signed copy of Doug's book "Backyard Bees" and the cost for the course is $308 per person. Bee hives like the ones that beekeepers use are an artificial environment for the bees so they need help to be encouraged to become a healthy and strong colony.
Which brings us to the subject of bee stings, particularly relevant considering we are all in the process of donning beekeeper outfits. An allergy to a bee sting is not the swelling usually thought to be an allergy. To have a true allergy to bees is akin to anaphylaxis and requires an epi pen solution. Only 0.001% of people are allergic to bees. Doug's advice for anyone that encounters bees and is scared of them is to, "Just walk into a dark room or under a tree and they'll usually go away. If you walk through a bush and they'll usually go away."
If you are stung, the stinger leaves behind a scent that lets other bees know where you've been stung and other bees are attracted to this and may also sting. If a bee persistently buzzes around your mask they are letting you know that they may not be happy with your presence. Loose is best with beekeeping outfits as they can sting through clothing.
"If you get a bee in your bonnet tell us," says Vicky which prompts some nervous laughter from people when they connect their beekeeping masks with the popular saying.
The hives sit tucked away in Centennial Park in a restricted area. Vicky explains how to open up a hive - the key is so be gentle and let the bees know what you're doing with slow movements that allow them to get out of the way. You don't want to kill any bees with sudden movements and when you take off and put on the lids, the bees will generally move on their own accord.
She deftly uses a hive tool to ease apart the wooden frames. Then using the crook side she lifts the frames vertically to inspect the frames. Beekeeping is very seasonal and depending on the season determines how often they check on the hives. Spring and Summer are the busiest seasons for beekeepers as they conduct frequent inspections. Autumn sees the production slowing down and Winter is about preparing for the upcoming Spring and Summer seasons.
Spring is also the season for bee swarming. This is when an existing hive splits to form a new hive of bees. Doug explains that bee swarms, "Are actually when the bees are the most relaxed and passive because they don't have a house to protect. The worker bees swarm because it's really good weather, there's lots of food around, days are getting longer, (they think) let's try and replicate the beehive so they make a special cell and get the queen to lay an egg in it...A couple of days before they stop feeding the existing queen bee so that she is slim enough to fly. They go "let's go" and they take off with her and form a big ball somewhere and they're hanging there looking for somewhere to go instead of foraging for food." Doug and Vicky collect bee swarms for free from people's homes and use the bees to populate the hives.
Bees like certain conditions: warmth (a hive temperature of around 35C or 95F is ideal), a lack of wind and a water source where they can land is ideal. Bees can drown when landing in water so corks and gravel are a favourite water source as is not particularly clean water. They use water to regulate their body temperature.
Inside the beehive
The front of the beehive
The ten hives in Centennial Park provide the bees with the sunlight and warmth that they need and we follow Vicky and Doug to the hives. Underneath our outfits are long sleeved pants, top and fully covered shoes. Most of the time nobody in the class gets stung unless they take their mask or gloves off. They keep logs using beekeeping software that Doug has developed and they listen to the sound of the bees. Listening to the various tones is something that comes from experience. Doug wears a triple layer suit jacket with bare hands while Vicky leaves her arms bare.
The hive is made up of several parts. The lid secures everything down and there is a front and back of the hive. Avoid standing in front of the hive as this is where they enter the hive and if you are blocking it they can get confused and sting you. Underneath this is a inner cover that sits above the honey super. The honey super is where the frames of honey are produced and where worker bees are found. This contains about 8-10 frames of honey with each frame can give up to 3 kilos of honey once extracted.
Underneath this is queen excluder layer that has small vent type holes that do not allow the larger queen and drone bees to traverse up to the honey super layer. Underneath this is the brood chamber or the bottom box. Every day the queen with a surrounding group of bees (much like ladies in waiting) dips the back of her abdomen into each of the cells and deposits an egg. Each cell holds an egg in various stages of development. Thousands of bees die each day and their numbers need to be replenished. Drone caps are larger, more oval topped cells to accommodate the larger sized drones while queen caps have a large round cover.
As we lift each layer off, Doug uses a couple of gentle puffs of smoke - this masks the communication of alarm by the guard bees. Bees forage for up to 5-8kms or 3-5 miles from their hive for nectar. Each worker bee produces about one quarter teaspoon of honey in their lifetime and each hive contains around 80,000 bees.
Doug points out a hive beetle, one of the pests that in number can bring down a hive. These seem to be more prevalent in the north of Sydney closer to Windsor. The hive beetle is not generally a problem with stronger colonies. There's excitement when he opens the brood layer and find the queen actively laying eggs.
Vicky brushing away the bees to collect honeycomb
Doug checks the logs and finds some frames to take back to the room to extract honey from. Vicky carefully removes the frames and very gently brushes the bees away who disperse. Back in the study room Doug cuts off the caps on both sides of the frames using a heated knife. The frames go in the extractor and in a matter of a minute, the precious raw honey collects at the bottom of the extractor.
Clockwise from left: Doug extracting the honey. Bottom left: a wild beehive found in Centennial Park
The Future of Bees?
Bees are in jeopardy and the biggest threat to them is a tiny little parasite called Varroa Destructor. Doug says, "Varroa is everywhere and we (Australia) are the only place that doesn't have it. We're just lucky. We've got a bit of distance and Australia hasn't been that big an importing country until recently. That's how it will come in, in a shipping container."
Horizontal top bar hive which is good for those who can't lift heavy weights
He continues, "The most recent time that they found it was March (2015). They found a container in Brisbane with a swarm of bees in it with varroa on board. It may already be here and we don't know. New Zealand had it for 5 years before they realised. Other things that are affecting bees are purely us. The overuse of insecticides, fungacides and herbacides, over development of land so all the open space disappearing, architects not wanting to plant things that flower. They're all spiny and things that don't flower so it's a desert for beneficial insects." He says that in America where the situation is extremely serious, they are rehabilitating 7 million acres of land and planting wild flowers for bees and pollinators.
"We've got 100 hives spread across Sydney what's incredible is those hives are pollinating all the fruits and vegetables for people in those areas and they don't even know it. When people try and grow something in their backyard that needs pollinating they don't get fruit or zucchini, pumpkins or passionfruit, says Doug. When they put hives into some areas they got phone calls from people saying that were getting fruit for the first time in years. Without bees Doug says, "We'll be in big trouble...but everyone's terrified of them. They need our help. We need to plant things that flower and not just grass in the backyard," he says.
So tell me Dear Reader, which type of bee do you think has it the hardest? Worker, drone or queen bee? And how much honey do you consume? What type of honey do you like? Have you ever been stung by a bee? Have you ever seen a bee swarm?
The Urban Beehive
101 Baxter Road, Mascot, NSW 2020
Ph: +612 9232 5600