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GARDENING AUSTRALIA - BACKYARD BEEKEEPING

I found this short article about keeping a Langstroth hive very interesting. I can relate to the bees on the wrong side of the suit. It's happened a few times.

Backyard Beekeeping

Organic Gardener Magazine, March / April 2008

Taking on backyard beekeeping has been a steep and sometimes painful learning curve for LINDA COCKBURN, but it’s another satisfying step towards self-reliance.

It was a climactic moment when I strapped a beehive to the back of
the ute and brought home 60,000 micro livestock. I almost felt like a real
farmer. It was climactic because for years I’ve been reading books, watching DVDs and attending field days in anticipation of exactly this moment.

Regardless, I felt woefully inexperienced to take on backyard beekeeping.
Keeping bees for honey production,the books told me, is not a timeconsuming activity. It involves checking the hive around 10 times a year, mostly around spring and summer, and diminishing over autumn and winter when the hive is inactive. But tell that to my bees!

Since starting out, I’m so keen I’m out there every weekend, smoker in one
hand, hive tool in the other. Perhaps I’ll come up with a new and rare delicacy,smoked honey’, but more likely I’ll create the first ever incidence of bees with lung cancer. Despite my enthusiasm, there definitely was a fear barrier to overcome in working with bees. What if the bees don’t like me and are happy to prove it,I wondered. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same and this is a major deterrent to taking up beekeeping, but I’ve discovered bee stings aren’t so bad, and you soon learn how to minimise them.

keeping in decline

There are more than 1500 species of native bees in Australia, with the vast
majority choosing a solitary existence over that of a colony, making them
unsuitable for hiving. In contrast, the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) is ideally suited, hence the somewhat controversial introduction of eight hives to Sydney in 1822.

National annual production is now between 17,000 and 25,000 tonnes from an estimated 600,000 hives – an average of 67kg per hive. Financially viable commercial producers will average 200- 250kg or more. Pollinating crops and the production of honey is an estimated $2 billion a year industry in Australia. So you might think all was well. But as in many other areas of the world, it’s an industry in decline. Our beekeepers are retiring and there are few young beekeepers replacing them. Vital skills are being lost.

Another potential threat to the industry is the varroa mite which has single-handedly caused a 25 per cent decline in the number of hives worldwide. The North Island of New Zealand was claimed by the mite in 2000 and four years later it crossed the Cook Strait. Australia is the last varroa mite holdout – our geographical isolation has kept us safe. We have also escaped Colony Collapse Disorder, a new bee scourge that is attributed to major losses of bee populations in other countries.

This all means there is a strong incentive for gardeners to support healthy bee populations by keeping a hive. This is especially so when you consider that one out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat can be directly linked to the work of bees. If their numbers decline too much, it may jeopardise crop pollination.

Bees establish flight paths as they leave and return to the hive, so you can their queen in the centre of the hive and the top super. This is an ingenious board that allows the bees to leave the super, but makes it difficult for them to find their way back in.

Forty-eight hours later the beekeeper takes the vacant super and extracts the honey. I recently bought a bee escape board and my partner, mishearing me, was quick to comment, “You’ve bought them everything already! Why do they need a skateboard?” There’s lots of expensive gear designed to centrifugally force the honey from the cells, but for the amateur beekeeper, a warm spot and gravity are sufficient to extract 80 per cent of the honey.

First, you use an uncapping knife, or a long sharp knife, dipped in boiling
water to carefully cut away the cappings. The frame is then left for the honey to slowly drip out, after which it is sieved for stray wings and things, and bottled.

Making your own honey allows you to sieve it more coarsely than commercial honey and so leave the pollen in it. Ingesting small amounts of local pollen is a natural inoculation for hayfever sufferers. Also, the honey need not be heat-treated which takes away some of the nutritional benefits.

costs and equipment

There’s lots of bee paraphernalia that you can buy but I suggest you start with the basics to find what works for you. The initial costs can be high. I counted on around $400 but it’s been closer to $600. However, there need not be any further costs for many years to come, and with the promise of 60kg or more of honey a year from a well-managed backyard hive, it’s not a bad investment.

On the equipment side, you’ll need: A smoker: They come in many varieties; average cost is $75. Protective gear: This can be $200 or more for the ‘right stuff ’, or you can put together your own kit. Get good advice on this.However, you definitely need to buy a veil. A hive tool: Essential to prise the frames apart and lift them. You’ll pay $20 to $40. A bee brush: Anything soft-bristled that’s unlikely to harm the bees. Supers and frames: The unassembled supers are cheap at approx $15 to $30 (depending on size), the frames cost around $1.40 each, the wax is about $1.00 a sheet.

the stinging truth

Backyard beekeeping is a rewarding hobby but one that comes with a big
warning! I’ve developed a nasty reaction to stings – four so far, and all my own fault. Two of them came when my bee suit rode up and I snapped it back down, admitting a cluster of bees that I was unaware were riding piggy back. The first clue to my error was seeing two bees buzz past my eyes on the wrong side of the suit, followed by a zang on my backside.

I’ve played it safe ever since and gone for three layers of clothing. Not everyone reacts badly to bee stings but in rare cases a sting can prove fatal. It’s a hobby that always requires protective gear. If you have a known bee allergy I suggest you give it a miss. Nearly as many people die in Australia from bee stings as from snake bites.

Having covered the bad news, I would highly recommend people add to their self-sufficiency skills by starting a hive. And while you can’t pat, hand feed or throw a bee a ball, a hive has a personality that extends well beyond the six week lifecycle of the average worker bee.

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Replies to This Discussion

I keep a beehive. I used to do this for quite a long time but when I went overseas for a while I gave the hives to my brother to look after and they all died out. I bought a nucleus hive from Guilfoyles a couple of years ago but they vanished into the bush during a spot of intense hot weather, (they were out in the sun, where I used to have them, but they couldn't cope with the increased temps that we got then). So I have now been very fortunate to get another box of bees from a friend, and have placed them in the shade under my Acerola Cherry tree. I hope they thrive there. Stings are an almost inevitable part of the whole process, especially when you come to robbing the hives. The non return board that is described in the article is a very good idea, much better than shaking and brushing angry bees off of frames! You still need a screened off area to extract the honey, I have a two frame extractor, but need to repurchase some of the necessary equipment for filtering and bottling the honey. I look forward to getting some honey in the not too distant future. Who else keeps European bees out there?

I have a topbar hive Roger. I've never owned a Longstroth and would be keen to see one being harvested. I don't go into my hive as often as I should due to lack of time, the weather. Fear lol.

I rarely get stung these days but then I put on three layers of clothing when I rob and have some great gloves. I still get the odd bee gets into the clothing with me though, on the wrong side of the net as Linda says.

Although it doesn't say it clearly, the non-return board to clear the honey supers of bees is a grand idea. Except that the hive has to be opened in order to put it in place. Two openings to the one harvest. I've not seen a non-Langstroth hive harvested to know whether less bees are trapped and killed. How Bob the Beeman has managed to kill so few bees with his native bee hives I don't know but whatever he has done perhaps could be done to the exotic bee hives of any design.

The article reads as though the Queen is in a top super. Practices vary but usually in a Langstroth hive, the Queen is confined to the bottom super under a queen excluder. How it works in a top-bar hive I don't know; vertical queen excluder perhaps?

Have I missed the bit about a Queen excluder for a top bar? I think that would be impossible.

The article is about a Langstroth.

Yes the article is about Langstroth hives - just musing on how I figure it would be good to have a vertical Queen excluder. I don't think there are such things though. How do you harvest honey when part of the comb contains eggs and larvae? I've not had a top-bar so there is much I don't know about them.

I have to lift out each comb and check to see what is on it Elaine. If just or mostly honey then I take it. The honey combs are mostly on the outside which makes it a bit easier. I try to stay away from the brood combs.

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