New city residents making lots of honey
Bees are adding a new buzz to city living, writes Laura Martin .
Forget your chickens, the buzz is bees are the new backyard necessity. With beehives now in Buckingham Palace, The White House and on the roof of Paris’s Opera Garnier, beekeeping is becoming a worldwide obsession. And now the long-practised tradition is making its way into the backyards of Sydney.
Follow the hum and you’ll find yourself down the backstreets of Surry Hills. As the trendy city dwellers queue for their regular dose of morning coffee, the Asylum Seekers Centre is setting a new trend of its own and it comes in the form of beekeeping.
“They don’t sting I promise”, volunteer Jessica Pereni insists as she reaches her bare hand out to the hive. The tiny bees come flitting in and out of the authentic, homemade hive (resembling something of a shoebox). It’s easy to forget your urban surroundings in the gardens of this local community centre. The hustle and bustle of the city streets is replaced with the buzzing of these tiny, native Australian creatures – otherwise known as the ‘Sugarbag’ bee.
Sitting in the centre’s bountiful garden with the bees flitting from plant to plant, an image similar to that of “Sydney airport” as Ms Pereni puts it, ones inherent fear is put at bay.
“There’s nothing scary about them. These native bees are stingless so they’re a perfect addition for a community centre. Like anyone the asylum seekers that come in here are a bit wary at first, you know bees … ‘I don’t know I like bees’ they’ll say. I had the same reaction when we first opened the hive and I had about 1000 land on me!” she laughs.
“I had that instant ancient fear, you know, to just hit me and get them off!”
An image hard to conceive as you watch Pereni nonchalantly put her hand up to the mouth of the hive coaxing the little creatures onto her fingers.
This backyard invasion is one encouraged by the local council. The Asylum Seekers Centre was one of the recent recipients of a City of Sydney environmental grant to go towards the centres recent ‘green’ project.
Katie Oxenham, Urban Ecology manager at the City of Sydney believes backyard beekeeping is not only a great hobby but a sustainable one as well.
“The hives make an interesting feature in the garden — but importantly, with many native beehives destroyed each year when hollow trees are cleared for development or safety reasons, urban beekeeping is doing its bit to maintain the pollination services they provide.”
Ms Pereni and the visitors at the Asylum Seekers Centre are not the only ones jumping upon the beekeeping bandwagon.
The Urban Beehive is an organisation that has beehives sprawled out across the backyards, rooftops and community gardens of Sydney.
Co-owner Vicky Brown believes the recent interest is wonderful news to the industry. “We wanted to bring pollinators back into the city and because there’s a lot of things happening around the world which are having an effect on the honeybee population, we saw an opportunity to bring awareness to the issue.”
As Ms Brown points out, while this new-found love for beekeeping may seem like a meagre fad, it is part of a much larger picture.
The future of bees in Australia is under threat. A tiny, but disastrous pest is predicted to hit Australian shores within the next ten-years – the Varroa mite. The introduction of the mite into the Australian environment could spell the end for feral and managed honeybees, reducing their pollination services by 90-100 per cent according the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
When bees are responsible for the pollination of 80 different crops, which translates to 30 per cent of the food Australia eats, this Varroa mite is bad news.
So perhaps a hive of bees in your backyard isn’t such a foolish idea after all. In fact some of the major players in the new game of backyard beekeeping are restaurants and cafes, such as the Cornersmith cafe in Sydney’s inner west and the Wine library in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Ms Brown said the demand from the food sector for personal beehives is due to their desire to source local products.
“A lot of the restaurants and hotels actually use the honey that the bees produce on their menu. Most of the restaurants are really into buying local produce and want to have more of a sustainable way of getting ingredients to their kitchens.”
But it’s not just the keen hobbyists such as Ms Brown who are delighted at the idea of urban beekeeping. Jodie Goldsworthy, co-owner of Beechworth honey is thrilled with the concept.
“We are absolutely delighted about the fresh interest in beekeeping from the community, we think it’s fabulous. We’ve been working hard to increase public awareness about bees and the importance of them. There’s an opportunity for improved value and respect of the intricacies of beekeeping and the understanding of honey.”
Intricate it is. “Busy as a bee” they say. But truly bees are busy creatures. To produce 500grams of honey, honeybees will cumulatively fly over 88,000 kilometres. To think of the frequent flyer points in that jar of honey.
With the onslaught of urban beekeeping and honey from the hive now accessible to the average city dweller, one would think the commercial honey industry is wary of the idea.
But as Jodie Goldsworthy points out, like any pet the novelty soon wears off.
“People will often get a goldfish and then decide they don’t want it any longer and sell it to someone else. So I guess we know the probability of everybody producing their own honey for the next forty years is fairly low, so in the interim while they have got that beehive what they do is learn a new respect and appreciation for how difficult it is to produce honey.”
Informing the public on the intricacies and importance of beekeeping is of such value to the company that a consequent drop in sales isn’t an issue.
“We look at it and say, yes, you know in the short-term we might sell a little less honey, but in the long-term we’ve actually got a better educated and more informed community.”
As important and interesting as backyard beekeeping may be as a hobby, it’s not a profitable one. Whilst those rampant business ideas of profiting from your hives hard work build up in your head, consider this — a honeybee will produce a quarter of a teaspoon of honey in their 28-35day lifespan. Not even enough to spread over your slice of toast.
“Whether it’s a pet of any kind, an animal, an insect, I think people will always underestimate the management required. Many of those urban beekeepers will decide in 12 months that it’s all too hard and there’s too much work for them. That romantic notion of going out to the backyard and taking the honey out when you want it, ends up not being quite as romantic as you would think,” Jodie chuckles.
But for the time being, this romantic notion is causing the buzz of beehives to grow louder across the backyards of Sydney.