Introduction to beekeeping

Harmony farm is a community farm, in Canyonleigh, NSW. The farm has a monthly working bee, sells its organic produce and arranges workshops, such as the one Matthew and I attended yesterday. The workshop was a birthday gift (Thanks Matthew!) Making a weekend of it we drove up the day before, set up camp, found some freakishly early wild mushrooms for a very gourmet risotto accompanied by champagne bubbles and a huge lightning storm lightshow.
We don’t have an exact address for the farm and I go to check on google maps, but there is no signal. Eventually we find a sweet spot in the road with two bars’ signal and I have a location. Maybe we are not as a awake as we think, because we still miss the entrance to the farm completely. A couple of calls to the farm from the end of a dirt road, give us directions via the nearby Telstra tower and we finally locate the farm. Perhaps because it is a bit out of the way, no one seems phased by our late arrival.
After signing in we’re greeted by local bee keeper Sylvia, who runs through some bee keeping basics and encourages us to don our protective gear, “Some people don’t wear protective gear, well good for them I say!” she laughed as she popped on a large hood with a mesh front, white overalls.
Those of us without this barrier between ourselves and the bees laughed along a little more nervously than the others. Not to worry, the bees are not so agressive, we can stand a bit further back or use the bellows to some smoke in their direction if they get to close. You know why beekeepers wear white? So we look least like the bees natural enemy, the brown bear!
We wander past apple trees mostly netted and heavy with fruit. A backdrop of Pinetrees and the occasional rabbit transport me into pictures in an old German translated book on beekeeping I first read. The hives are all lined up facing the same way and stand around a metre apart. The static black and white pictures I’d seen before told very little of the story of beekeeping that would unfold over the next 4 hours.
As we got closer we noticed a few bees going in and out of the bottom of the hives. This is not a good location to stand, as bees want to travel in straight lines and don’t like to have to go around us, so we dash past as quickly and crowd around the back and sides of the hives. Checking the entrances is one of the inspection techniques to check the health of a hive. Lots of bees and lots of activity is a more productive hive. Not all the hives here have busy entrances.
For a closer inspection Sylvia approaches two small hives near the end of the row. She takes a seat behind one of them and proceeds to show us the inner workings of the world of bees, the hive. These are starter or nucleus hives which have been split up earlier in the year from bigger hives. The frames are part filled with cells and hundreds of bees dance around the surface looking every bit preoccupied with their own work and very little concerned with us. Good!
Next we head for a wider taller hive, this one is arranged with two full size boxes, in this case there 8 frames in each. The upper box usually where the honey is stored and below it, separated by a wire mesh known as a queen excluder, lives the queen who is just too big to get through the gaps in the mesh, and keeps the young bee eggs (brood) which she’s normally busy laying in one layer. Keeping the honey and brood are kept neatly apart makes it easier for the beekeeper to rob (yes that’s the official beekeeping term for it) the combs of honey for people to enjoy. There won’t be any honey robbed from these hives for the moment, there’s not enough honey stored even for the bees, so they’ll need additional feeding to keep them going.

Earlier in the week I’d read “A Year in Slow Food” by the Fosters who live up the road in Dundanoon. They describe the area as being “littered with abandoned hives”. Conditions are hard for our little bees here, there’s not enough nutritional variety to keep them in the rudest of bee health. So it is that our introduction to keeping healthy happy bees is illustrated up front with some of the problems we can expect to encounter. The next sign that something is wrong is that the brood cells (these are either open, with a curled white grub) or dark capped do not fill up the frame but are patchy. A healthy hive should have full comb of brood at this time of year with a few honey cells towards the edges and top corners. Two diseases, European Foul Brood and Chalk brood are both in evidence, both present quite clearly in the hive. The bee grubs hardening and appearing chalky for chalk brood and EFB infected grubs malformed.
Nutrition for the brood is pollen, which the bees carry in little sacks on their legs when they come into the hive quite clearly. Lots of different coloured pollen tells you the grubs are getting a varied diet in their start to life. A bit of purple tells you they’re feeding on Patterson’s curse. A chap at the DPI is logging the properties of the different pollens, but its a big job. Since there’s not enough for the bees to forage on themselves, they’re treated to a pollen cake which provides some of the protein and fatty acids they need to build up the brood. In turn the brood will grow up to collect the nectar that provides energy for the adult bees and in a good year, for some people too.
After morning tea, with cakes supplied by friends of Harmony farm (special thanks to the baker of the fruit cake!) we return to the education shed (and it is a shed) for a follow up Q & A session and a chance to purchase some spotted gum honey from Sylvia’s own bees. I buy more honey, I can never resist a new variety, so we’ve always a good dozen jars at home of varieties I’ve spotted while out and about. Just as well it keeps for ever!

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