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What’s all the Buzz in Canberra?

ACT Beekeepers Association President Cormac Farrell. Photo Credit: Angela Fane

There is a sound of buzzing in the air of Canberra and President Cormac Farrell of the ACT Beekeeping Association knows what all the ‘buzz-i-ness’ is about.

The sound is coming from backyard beehives as people continue to join the ‘hive mind’ and take part in the beekeeping craze.

The ACT Beekeeping Association is a beekeeping club in and around the Australian Capital Territory, that beekeepers and hive owners take part in for mostly recreational purposes.

The association’s president believes the growing number of beekeeping hobbyists are springing up for the benefits beekeeping brings to gardens, as well as for the supplement of honey and making new fuzzy, backyard friends.

Cormac Farrell invited Angela Fane along to their monthly meeting, to gain insight into the lives of beekeepers and their bees.

But ‘bee’ warned, Cormac said a common beekeepers joke acknowledges that “if you ask ten beekeepers a question, you will get about 20 to 30 different answers”.

Here are a few answers that Cormac shared.


Q. Why is there a rise in beekeeping in Canberra?

“The main influx we saw for new members to the ACT beekeepers came off the back of the save the bee’s movement. A global concern over something called colony collapse disorder in the United States. But that’s been ongoing now for quite a while – it seems to have resolved itself – we haven’t figured out what the problem was but that concern brought a lot of people into beekeeping because they wanted to actually keep bees and bring them into the city. And with that came the realisation that, in particular for very keen home gardeners, that more bees meant more production for their crops.

The flow hive was a social media hit phenomenon. It brought in at least 20 thousand new beekeepers. Also, the huge amount of media attention brought a lot of people into beekeeping and they wanted to start to keep bees because they realised that the hive technology has improved a lot, and also there were supports there to learn beekeeping.”

Q. How strong is the Canberra beekeeping community? How many hobbyists and commercial beekeeper members do you have?

“We don’t distinguish between hobbyist and commercial beekeepers but we can have a reasonable guess at who they are. We have around 500 members in the association itself and a lot of them are family members so we estimate. It’s really hard to get a detailed estimate but based on registration of hive, we have at least a thousand beekeepers in the Canberra region. I think we are catching about half of the beekeepers in Canberra. And of those, in the urban area, we have two commercial beekeepers.

In the surrounding areas, we have a lot of commercial beekeepers but they tend to be quite itinerant because commercial operations have to move through the landscape, chasing the nectar and the flowers and the blossoms.

In terms of demographics, we cover absolutely everything. From little kids to people in their 80s’ and 90s’.”

Q. How does the Canberra region suit bees?

“Canberra is one of the best places for people to keep and raise bees and to produce honey and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, Canberran’s are really keen gardeners so they have these beautiful gardens that are really lush and full of flowers and that’s what bees need.

Secondly, the ACT government has been fantastic. They’ve deliberately planted a lot of street trees that are flowering, which produce nectar for animals including bees. So off the street tree consistent in Belconnen, there are 17, 000 flowers trees just planted along roadsides and that translates to the seasonal areas particularly in spring when the ‘yellow box’ and ‘red box’ is flowering. An average hive can produce anywhere between 20 and 30 kilos of honey for that season.

Thirdly, Canberra is extremely low in pollutants. The urban area ironically is much cleaner than rural areas. There are no pesticides being sprayed, generally in peoples gardens. And there are very low levels of air pollution so it is one of the cleanest areas to produce honey. So when you add that to a very diverse and productive flower base, you get really good conditions for honey production.”

Q. You mentioned in the meeting that the government is a strong stakeholder. How is that?

“The ACT government has specifically changed their laws and regulations to allow urban beekeeping, and that’s not the case across the country. Some councils and some local governments deliberately ban beekeeping in urban areas, mainly driven by peoples concern and fear of bees, which is unwarranted. I think the ACT government has been quite forward thinking. They have established a code of practice for recreational urban beekeeping to give guidance to people in how they keep bees. They’ve been onto us and we’ve been involved in helping them draft that guideline.

Secondly, they support us by allowing us to use the Jerrabombra Wetlands Centre as a training apery. We have 20 hives in all sorts of different configurations throughout that apery and that allows us to train new beekeepers and also to show people these new and different styles of hives and beekeeping techniques throughout the region.”

Q. What are the benefits of beekeeping?

“I think a lot of people get into it for two reasons: they like honey or they want the bees to pollinate their plants – and that’s why I got into it. I had fruit trees that weren’t producing very well so I got a hive of bees to improve pollination and that worked beautifully. Bees are the most efficient pollinators. If you want prize-winning fruit, you need a large amount of pollination. That’s why orchids pay beekeepers to put bees in their orchids.

But a lot of beekeepers find honey a nice byproduct.”

Q. Does everyone in the association breed bees for honey?

“Everyone does but some keep native bees as well. One thing a lot of people don’t realise is that there are 20, 000 species of bees worldwide and of those honeybees are just one. So you have the one that gets all the press, I guess because it gets the honey and its used for crop pollination – the European honey bee which is not native to Australia. In the Canberra region, we have at least 15 to 20 bee species, which are also incredibly important for pollination and they are really beautiful so people are really starting to appreciate them and keep them just for the sake of keeping these beautiful little creatures in their garden.

We have a special interest group that specialises in native bees. The main advantage of the native bees is that they do specific types of pollination such as buzz pollination, where flowers have to be shaken at a very specific pitch to be pollinated to release there pollen, for example, tomato plants. The native blue bandit bee is the main buzz pollinators in our landscape.”

Q. What is it about beekeeping that makes it so special?

“Each beekeeper is going to give you a different answer to that question. Bees themselves are quite fascinating. They’ve been in their current form for about 20 to 30 million years. There’s a lot of evolution in there and the colonies themselves, it’s like seeing an alien society. Everyone does their job and no ones in charge. The ‘queen bee’ is an important bee in the colony but she is not actually in charge. They run themselves, they organise 30 to 50 thousand bees and are completely self-organised. They even vote collectively on decisions, they are in fact a democracy.

Individual hives will have a personality of their own, that you can get to know. You do get this really close connection to your bees. they are quite fascinating. People might get into beekeeping for the things bees might do for them but they end up almost seeing them like pets.

And native bees are the same but they have a completely different way of living. Species live in collections and colonies but they can’t survive Canberra winters. The bees here are solitary or semi-solitary, so they live in loose collectives, like a block of flats. or they’ll live as individuals.

The native species have leafcutter bees that cut bits off leafs and use them to make a nest out of, really beautiful cutting jaws that cut semi-circles which they then wrap around their abdomen and fly off; you’ve got teddy bear bees that look just like a little teddy bear in bee form – very fuzzy, brown, super cute – they’re actually a mason bee, so they barrow into masonry and they eat their way into brickwork to create their homes. You’ve got the borrowing bees: the blue bandit bees, the reed bees.”

Q. So people treat their bees as part of the family, as pets?

“Totally. I know I do, you get to know them pretty well. The more beekeeping you do, the more you start to smell like a hive, especially if you eat the honey from the hives. Their smell will start to permeate you. Each hive has their own unique smell, but also bees recognise the smell of the hive. So one of the fun things about when you do become a beekeeper, you will be out somewhere – anywhere – and a bee will just come and sit and rest on you.

People gain better confidence as time goes on and they get a better connection to their colonies. They get to know their moods better, you become a lot more in tune with the bees. It’s like a relationship that you have with your colonies that grows over time.”

Q. You mentioned that bees have personalities. Are there any notable personalities that you have come across?

“The colonies that we have up at parliament house are really lovely colonies. They are gentle bees, deliberately so, because they are in a semi-public area. You don’t need to wear a suit or gear with gentle bees. They’re quite fun, quite friendly. They’ll sort of sit on you as you are doing your inspection.

At the other end of the spectrum, some colonies are super cranky. With very little provocation they’ll just start to attack and sting you. They become very defensive and you definitely remember the bad ones because they do tend to sting you. The Russian bees tend to be quite cranky.

Depending on the type of bee you have, they also have unique patterns, different colours.”

Q. What should people who are new to beekeeping expect, particularly in Canberra?

“What you will expect is, the bees will do things that will be very unexpected. Us beekeepers are constantly surprised at how they are behaving. They are a super complex organism and we don’t understand them particularly well.

I always say this to people: “it’s easy to become a competent beekeeper, but it takes a whole lifetime to become an expert”. We have some expert beekeepers in the association that sort of act as mentors, and you should expect to have many different opinions on how to solve a particular issue. There’s a common joke, that if you ask ten beekeepers a question, you will get about 20 to 30 different answers. Most of them mutually exclusive.

You can see how experienced a beekeeper is by how much protective gear they wear. The really experienced beekeepers who really know their bees well, they start to wear less of a suit unless they have a specific reason such as dealing with a difficult colony.”

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