How many people can say their hobby feeds them, all while saving the world? Although in the past bees have gotten a bad rap – with many of us being wary of their painful sting – in recent years they have been gaining popularity, especially with more and more of us discovering how greatly their population is under threat.
Worldwide, bee populations are dying, and since 2013, their numbers in some parts of the world have fallen by a third. The main cause of the decline is believed to be the varroa mite, a parasite that attacks honey bees.
Although Australia has so far been unaffected by the mite, Dr. Anneke Veenstra, a senior lecturer at Deakin University, says that around the world it is harming colonies at an alarming rate.
“In America before 1988 there were five million hived honey bee colonies. Then the varroa mite arrived, and by 1993 that number had diminished to 2.5 million,” she said.
“Hives in New Zealand were infected by the varroa mite in 2000, and approximately 30 to 35% of hived colonies were eradicated.”
According to Dr Veenstra, other reasons for the decline could also include loss of flower meadows, use of pesticides, and climate change.
In New South Wales, drought has crippled bees’ ability to make honey and survive winter, with beekeepers resorting to hand-feeding their colonies to keep them alive.
The importance of bees
Not only are bees important for your morning’s honey-on-toast, but they also play a big role in the agriculture industry.
Bees have massive eco-system benefits, and albeit being an introduced species, two-thirds of Australia’s agriculture diversity relies on the honey bee population. In addition, it is believed that annually, bees contribute four to six billion dollars to the Australian economy.
Around the world, they are also said to pollinate 70 of the approximate 100 different crop species, which feed 90% of the world.
Smarter than you think
According to a recent study, not only do bees help us, but they are also more intelligent than you might think. New research from RMIT and University of Toulouse has found that the honey bee is capable of basic mathematics.
During the study, bees were taught to recognise colours as symbolic representations for addition and subtraction. They were then able to use this information to solve arithmetic problems – a skill that scientists say requires two levels of processing, suggesting advanced numerical understanding.
Beekeeping: The growing trend
According to Byron Smith, author of The Urban Grower’s Recipe for the Good Life, beekeeping is a worthwhile business. In one year, he says a single beehive will produce fifty-two kilograms of honey, which equates to 12,000 teaspoons – enough for one chai a day for thirty-two years.
But as if that’s not amazing enough, they also require surprisingly little work.
“When people ask me if having a hive is hard work, I tell them that it requires about 52-hours a year and that the ‘return’ is about 52 kilograms of honey. I leave it to them to do the math,” he said.
Oh, the things they can do that are good for you
Besides the hobby’s obvious benefit to bee populations worldwide, Smith says it can also offer wellbeing advantages to the individual.
“Hive maintenance and honey harvesting are meditative activities requiring close observation and constant learning,” he said.
“As soon as you open the lid to the hive, you can see the female bees busily working away, some flying in with pollen and others on their way out to forage.”
How to get started
For anyone interested in getting involved, Smith says it’s as simple as registering for a local workshop, where you can gain some hands-on skills.
After this, he recommends visiting the nearest beekeeping supply store and buying a hive, as well as joining a local club.
“[Your local club] is a great place to meet like-minded people, learn about local conditions and share harvesting equipment to save costs,” he said.
Smith also recommends registering your hive with the Department of Primary Industries to stay up-to-date with beekeeping tips.
And finally, he says the most important thing for beekeeping is to ‘bee’ curious.
“Dedication to the bees and constant observation will naturally make you a good beekeeper. I’d recommend opening the hive four or five times a year for harvesting, and another six times for inspections,” he said.
“Your participation in the hive doesn’t have to be constant, just regular. Open the box up or just sit nearby and watch the happenings For a happy hive my advice is to pay close attention, be observant and stay curious.”
Words by Kathryn Lee
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