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A bee adventure

"Australia is a major exporter of bees and by keeping our population healthy we have the potential to re-populate the world’s bees."

Bee the Cure

Well yesterday we did our tiny bit to save the bees of the world. Italian bees at that.

What happened to us yesterday is actually the second time in my life it happened. Way, way back in our first Australian house, my toddler firstborn and I were in the garden when an enormous dense cloud of bees making a huge buzzing noise approached us and settled on a tree in the garden in a huge clump. We rushed inside.

I then remembered I had seen an ad for swarm removal - one of life's big coincidences because this was before the internet - and so I rang the man and he came and took them away with puffer smoke and all geared up. I remember he knocked the swarm off the branch to which they were clinging into the hive he had set below, and then set about scraping up those that had not fallen in, into the hive. Bryn and I watched it all from inside.

And yesterday it happened again although somewhat differently. As I walked up the drive on the start of my morning walk I heard a lot of buzzing and thought that there must be a tree attracting the bees. But no there was a widely spread out cloud of bees buzzing around - I think you can just see them. So I told David in case he wanted to look and walked on. After all they had not settled and for all I knew they were just passing through.

And indeed when I returned there was no buzzing and so I assumed they had departed. Later that afternoon though, David decided to cut the grass - well mostly the weeds - and almost brushed into this swarm on a low hanging branch of a tree - well the weight of the bees had actually dragged the branch to the ground.

So I took to the internet - times have changed - and within seconds of typing in 'apiarists Eltham', I had the name of Beelife Beekeeping and its owner Murray Lazenby who lives in North Eltham. An email with photo was sent and he agreed to come out after dark - when the bees would have all returned home - to retrieve them.

I think there are a few beekeepers in Eltham. I know of one whom I pass on one of my walks. If I had not found anything online, I was going to go and knock on his door. These are just some of his hives. He has at least the same number again but they didn't all fit in this photo. I think I have also passed another house advertising the fact that they are apiarists, and there is definitely somebody selling their honey in the Eltham Farmer's market.

When Murray eventually turned up at almost 9.00 pm he told us that these were in fact Italian bees - much prized by beekeepers - and that they had probably come from a nearby hive. You can tell by their colouring which is greyer than the normal bee. Well that's what he said, but when I looked up Italian bees on Wikipedia it seemed to imply they were brown. They were quite small. According to Murray's website bees can travel 2-3 km to collect pollen. I don't know whether they swarm further than that. And here's a thought - maybe they were from his own hives, although he may be just a bit over 3kms away.

He also explained that the Italian bees were particularly docile and encouraged us to get up close to see. As you can see from the not too wonderful photos below (I had forgotten where the flash was on my camera), he was not covered in beekeeping gear. Just a COVID mask - which made me feel bad because we had not donned ours. All he had to do was cut off the branch whilst still holding it and then carefully place it in the box he had brought. He had cut off some little twigs beforehand and shaken off the few bees that were on them into the box. A dustpan was placed under the swarm so that they didn't all fall off on the ground and also for some support I guess. He said it would have weighed around 3 kg. The bees left on the ground were swept up with the brush and put in another box. They would be put into a new hive when he got home. If you are interested he will sell you a queen and some frames for $55.00 and teach you what to do. Maybe we should have kept them!

He also told us two other things that I did not know. Bees can't see in the dark. Another reason for doing this in the dark. Also we had got them just in time and probably saved their lives, because the forecast was for rain in the night, and this might well mean that they would drown. They do not like rain. It batters them and drowns them. In rain they shelter in their hive, which, of course, where they normally are.

And finally any bees that had not been retrieved - there were a few buzzing around - would probably return to what he called their Mother hive. Let's hope they did before that rain because it definitely did rain. Or perhaps lone bees can shelter better than a swarm, wait out the rain and then return home.

He is a professional beekeeper with about 10 hives at his suburban home, and a further 30 in nearby Diamond Creek on a block of 2 acres. However he says he also has a yoga and pilates business as the bees don't earn enough and it's too much work to grow bigger. Real commercial apiarists have hundreds of hives.

On a commercial scale there are, of course, all manner of suspect things going on. The BBC has a very informative article called Can we save the bees that feed the world? in which they describe the problems confronting beekeepers of all kinds, from the hobby beekeeper, to the huge commercial honey producers such as Capilano and the commercial pollinators who drive truckloads of hives around the country to pollinate crops - a practice the bees do not like.

Here in Australia I found a couple of organisations with a mission to save the bees - Save the Bees Australia and Save our Bees Australia and I'm sure there are many more. So if you are interested in helping check them out.

Beekeeping is pretty trendy. There are hives on rooftops in Melbourne and other cities worldwide, often servicing posh restaurants. My son thought about it once, but it's not that easy I believe. There are all sorts of potential problems. Disease, pesticides, mites - this last is a major problem worldwide. If the bees die the world dies basically. Kangaroo Island claims to have the last pure Ligurian bees in the world, and are very anxious about keeping them. Also there are things like a situation we saw at an apiary in Canada that we visited when my son was living there and considering keeping bees. They had a new queen in a glass sided hive, and the beekeeper there said they were waiting to see whether the bees were going to accept her or turn on her and kill her. Apparently they sometimes do. And yes there is a danger of being stung. Murray said he just didn't really notice any more.

Which brings me to an interesting article I found in the Australian Guardian about the native sugar bag bee. Which is stingless, but produces hardly any honey. It's a pollinator not a honey producing machine:

But I can honestly say that sugarbag honey is the best I’ve ever tasted. It could be said that it is an acquired taste, but they say that about truffles too don’t they? All the best and most delicious things are an acquired taste in my humble opinion. Maybe because it is hard to acquire and potentially the extra effort of procuring these things leads us to having extreme love-it-or-hate-it views about them." Palisa Anderson - The Guardian Australia

Which is an idea I might explore further some time. Coriander, avocado, eggplant ...

Yesterday was a wildlife centred day. On my walk I also saw an echidna and at last managed to photograph a duck and a cockatoo. They generally don't stay still for long enough. Not very exotic I know, but still rather lovely. In my fundamentally English mind, cockatoos are still incredibly exotic to me. The kangaroos were photographed a few days ago. You can never get a picture of the echidna's face. They just burrow their heads down and pretend they aren't there.

I should go for a walk - who knows what else I will see?


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