ZEN AND THE ART OF BACK YARD BEEKEEPING
Thirty virgin queens and their escorts buzz quietly in Robert Beer's car while
attends a meeting of the Amateur Beekeepers' Society. The queen bees have just
arrived by post from Queensland and appear content in the matchbox-size wooden
cages, apparently untroubled by their journey through the postal system. Their
final destination is Mount Compass, where they will re-queen Robert's hives, but
in the meantime a honey tasting is in progress, accompanied by animated
talk of nectar sources, honey flow and the current season, which is shaping up
to be spectacular.
For more than forty years, members of the Amateur Beekeepers' Society have
met once a month to pool knowledge and share their passion for the art of
keeping bees. At the tasting they circle enthusiastically around sample jars,
which range in colour from a delicate lemon-coloured mix of blue gum and pink
gum to an almost black honey. As they discuss the finer points of honey
granulation it's impossible not to notice that these beekeepers exude an
enviable serenity. In conversation, they stress the importance of remaining
calm, but is the composure - which they appear to possess in abundance -
innate, or has it developed as a consequence of handling large numbers of bees
without being badly stung? In short, is there a beekeeping temperament?
Society President, Robert Beer, believes there is.
"It's a steady nature, complimented by experience," he says. "Even when you're
under attack by bees
you've got to stay calm enough to realise what's going on, and if you handle
bees in a quiet and methodical way, then they stay calm too.”
At 90, Peter Shorne is the society's oldest member. While he has no bees
at the moment, Peter still attends meetings and doesn't rule out the
possibility of keeping hives in the future. Dennis Straga has come to learn how
to care for hives left to him by his late father. As a kid, Dennis tagged
along when his dad visited the hives with the sole aim of getting hold of some
wax-capped honeycomb to chew.
"It's unlike anything else in the world," he says. "You have to try some."
Ahmed Fayid, originally from Eritrea in East Africa, has been a member for
around nine months.
"I kept bees in my own country," he says, adding that currently he has
nowhere suitable to keep them, but that another member has offered to let him
establish a few hives on his property. Ahmed smiles broadly. "Beekeepers are
very kind people," he says.
Although the principles of extracting honey from hives has hardly changed
since biblical times, each season is a lucky dip in terms of pollen sources and
the weather. At the honey tasting, the member who has brought along the very
dark honey endures jokes about having changed the oil in his car and muddled
the jars, but after tasting the treacle-like mixture, members settle to serious
analysis. It's only the second time since the hives were established that the
honey has been dark: they discuss drought conditions and what plants around
Willunga might have flowered for the first time in seven years. Bees are
barometers of the environment, and beekeepers strive to work with nature rather
than against it.
But, as with all agricultural endeavours, there are pests and diseases to
consider, enemies of the European honeybee, such as American Foul Brood and the
much dreaded varroa mite, the latter having devastated beekeeping almost
everywhere, bar Australia. In New Zealand, varroa mite was first discovered by
amateur beekeepers, and here in South Australia commercial apiarist Leigh
Duffield insists that amateurs are a valuable resource for the state's honey
industry, particularly in the early spotting of outbreaks of disease.
"Commercial beekeepers are pushed for time and money so they have to work
hard and quick. But amateurs have enquiring minds, they love the insects and
the craft and they're in a perfect position to observe changes in their hives
and ask important questions."
In these days of minimalist gardens and diminishing back yards, a
beekeeper in traditional veiled hat is a rare sight in the suburbs, but local
councils maintain a list of individuals prepared to come out and collect stray
Libby Round gardens on an acre at Eden Hills and, along with a pair of
traditional white bee boxes, a wild hive thrives in the trunk of a grey box
tree. In her garden, pathways meander through herb and flower borders busy with
bees; a spectacular Algerian oak casts a canopy of shade over the rear of
Libby's house and when it is in flower, the whole tree hums.
"I just love the idea of bees out there pollinating the garden," Libby
says. "It's a romantic notion. But beekeeping is hard work, too."
In summer, Sigi Friebe works on his hives wearing shorts and a T-shirt,
insisting that sixty years experience is his best defence against being stung.
"There's no need to be afraid of bees," he says.
Sigi insists his bees always know if he's feeling unwell, and at 3.30 in
the afternoon they tell him it's time to knock off by buzzing him back to the
Len Turner's Highbury garden is deliciously honey-scented, as is the room
where he extracts the honey that won him Grand Champion at the 2006 Royal
Adelaide Show. After many years of beekeeping, Len remains passionate on the
"The main thrill for a beekeeper is to open the hive and see how the brood
is going, to check on the queen. It's seeing a living thriving community in
action. Without having that experience, it's difficult to realise the wonder of
The society maintains its own working hives and hosts field days where
beginners can gain first hand experience. They also run a library, produce a
, and offer classes in beekeeping practices. But
perhaps the most attractive feature of all that the society offers is the
opportunity to spend time with people who have, literally, taken time out to
smell the flowers.
Tasting the Honey