Not all of us can keep bees, but “The Bee Friendly Garden” by Doug Purdie shows us how we can all help our most important pollinators to thrive.
Earlier this year a friend of mine wandered out into her large garden and was met by a horrifying sight.
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I’m not going to beat about the bush with this review of “Backyard Bees – A Guide for the Beginner Beekeeper” by Doug Purdie (Murdoch Books, 2014) – I absolutely love this gorgeous, comprehensive and timely book about backyard beekeeping.
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You might have guessed by now that I have an interest in food security. I also have a minor passion for bees and if you follow me on Instagram you’ll see my (sometimes clumsy) attempts to capture pictures of the busy little things on my smart phone. I have a zillion of them in my garden and I’m happy to hang out with them whenever I can, visiting hives wherever the opportunity presents itself, both locally, on Kangaroo Island, and in my further travels when recently I was able to get to meet some international bees on my trip to Canada.
Bees are an imperative part of our food chain, pollinating an estimated 1/3 of the human food supply, and without them we will all be in very dire straits. Most attract pollen to their fuzz with an electrostatic charge, others are specialised to collect the nutritious floral oils produced by some plants and even fewer are a group of native bees in New Zealand which have evolved to open the flower buds of a indigenous plant which cannot flower without their help. However they do their job, we can’t get by without them, so I was excited to be able to look at two very different apiaries when in British Columbia a couple of months ago, one of which was on Vancouver Island and the other, surprisingly, in the centre of busy, downtown Vancouver.
Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery hides behind a glorious garden, nestled into the side of a hill on Vancouver Island, not far from the charming seaside town of Sooke. A fermented honey wine, mead is probably the oldest known fermented beverage and Bob Liptrot combines his 43 years of beekeeping experience and 25 years of mead-making skills to perfection in this award-winning winery and fascinating tourist destination. Vancouver Island born and raised, Bob has had a passion for bees since he was a very young boy, learning the ropes by helping a neighbour from the time he was 6 years of age. He has a Masters Degree in Entomology and, after experimenting with mead for 25 years, registered Tugwell Creek as British Columbia’s first meadery in 2003.
So far, Canada has managed to mostly escape the ravages of Colony Collapse Disorder that plague the United States. The European Honey Bee is the most common bee used in honey production, but British Columbia alone has an astonishing 2,000 species of native bees and Bob has somewhere between 100-150 bee colonies producing 10,000-12,000 litres of honey per annum. Keeping his hives within a 20 km circumference of his farm, Bob’s bees forage on wild feed and the honey is combined with locally grown berries to produce his hand-crafted meads.
Prior to my visit to Tugwell Creek Farm, my experience of mead had been limited to the one tasting experience I had about 25 years ago at a McLaren Vale meadery, so I was utterly gobsmacked by the sophistication and subtlety I found in the wines I tasted here. Using traditional recipes and local fruits such as apples, berries, quinces and (of course) maple syrup Bob produces a range of delicious wines that I only wish I could get here in Australia. Of course, simply by virtue of the nature of artisan, hand-made products that is not going to happen – and neither it should. Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery is open for tastings, guided and self-guided tours, but watch out – I noticed particularly serious looking electric fences around the bee-hives and, on inquiring, was told it was to stop the bears from stealing the honey!
Bears are never a problem at the next apiary I visited. Tucked up on the roof of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, Vancouver, these urban beehives have one of the best views in the world, in my humble opinion. I adore Fairmont hotels and have stayed in them regularly (at my own expense, this is not sponsored gushing) and when I found out that some of them keep beehives I just had to visit them.
The Fairmont chain was a very early adopter of sustainable best practices and originated their Green Partnership Program back in 1990. They have assumed a variety of practices to minimise their impact and to contribute to ongoing environmental efforts worldwide, including maintaining beehives on 14 of their hotels. The Fairmont Waterfront obtained their first beehives in 2008 and have 6 hives with over 100,000 bees per hive. They also maintain another 19-20 hives on the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel to help cope with the demand for their honey – the production of which topped over 2,100 kilos last year.
The bees are kept on the pool-level roof, as the very top roof would be far too high for them to survive. For quite some time they were maintained by the hotel’s ex sous chef who was a bee-keeper, but since he has moved on they are overseen by a commercial honey bee company, with their day to day management supervised by Michael King, the Health and Safety Manager at the hotel.The hives are placed on the roof in spring-time and kept there through the summer and early autumn until the winter chill becomes a danger to the bees, when they are moved to shelter.
Michael took me for a wander through the bee’s 2,100 square foot rooftop garden which has been planted with flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. The garden is a wonderful resource for fresh produce for the hotel and a very special place for the lucky guests whose rooms look out onto it. There is no restriction to access to the garden for these guests, although they have to be prepared to share it with the bees.
The bees, in turn, share their honey with the hotel guests where it is available in and with a very special, very local afternoon tea. I was deliriously happy sipping on one of the 12 teas on offer as I inhaled the delicious honey scones, bannock and lemon thyme cake pops, all served with little pots of this special urban honey – and all of which are just more reasons to encourage and promote the benefits of bee-keeping everywhere.
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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can’t fail to have some degree of awareness of the potential crisis facing worldwide food production as a result of the collapse of bee colonies. A huge amount of food crops are pollinated by bees and therefore at risk if bee numbers dwindle too low – and that is exactly what is happening, particularly in North America. For so many reasons, we are very lucky here in Australia. In this instance our distance from the rest of the world means we have a buffer against some of the suspected causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) such as disease and the Varroa Mite and also because right here in South Australia – on Kangaroo Island (KI) – we have the only pure colony of Ligurian bees in the world.
Ligurian bees are valued as a calm, good-natured and industrious bee and were introduced to Kangaroo Island from their home in Italy in 1884. The island was subsequently declared a bee sanctuary in 1885 and no other bees have been imported since. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. This means that not only are the bee colonies on KI protected from bee diseases which are present on mainland Australia, but also from the rest of the world thus avoiding the use of antibiotics and chemicals that many bee colonies require to stay viable. A breeding and research resource such as this disease-free and genetically pure strain of bee may well become pivotal in the fight against Colony Collapse Disorder.
Local identity Peter Davis of Island Beehive has one of the largest Ligurian honey-bee operations anywhere in the world and is one of Australia’s biggest organic honey producers. The diligent little bees in his 700-800 hives produce, on average, around 100 tonnes of honey a year. Peter, who was born on KI, came from a background of mixed farming and his parents had bees when he was growing up. What was once a family sideline has now become his family business and the store and processing plant that Peter opened in 2006 is the sweet centre of his enterprise.
In the premises behind the shopfront Peter extracts his honey, uses the beeswax to produce a quirky line of candles and stores the enormous drums of honey which will be exported to both Japan and China. The store itself is where all of the honeys he produces can be tasted and purchased, along with the most diverse selection of bee and honey related products I’ve ever seen. Peter’s wife has an enviable collection of vintage and antique honey pots which she has sourced from around the world and they are all on display in the store, along with a transparent beehive where those precious little insects can be observed going about their business.
But – back to global food security and Peter’s role in it. Bees have a limited capacity to keep themselves warm through the cold northern weather and require a critical mass to do so. A healthy colony stands a much greater chance of surviving so bees weakened by exposure to disease and Varroa Mite enter a difficult season already compromised. At the end of each winter there is always a percentage of colonies which fail to survive the weather, but there has been growing alarm at the increasing rates of colony loss, principally in North America. Recent reports have suggested that up to 70% of bee colonies did not make it through to spring this current year, although when I spoke to Bob Liptrot of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm on Vancouver Island he told me he suspected that the real figure was probably closer to 90%.
The disease-free status of Kangaroo Island bees and the pristine environment in which they thrive means that South Australia has a distinctly precious asset to share with the world. Over the years Peter, along with other Kangaroo Island apiarists, has developed a sideline in breeding up queens and exporting them to the rest of the world and has been regularly doing so for some time. If the situation in North America continues along current lines they may well be looking to Kangaroo Island beekeepers such as Peter Davis to save their pollinators and their crops – sooner rather than later. The importance of maintaining this pristine environment becomes ever more significant in this light and is a responsibility we should all be aware of.
There have been numerous studies into the causes of CCD (and, given the inconclusive results, one wonders who funds them) and the blame has been laid at the feet of various possible causes including viruses, bacterial diseases, the Varroa Mite, the use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids and the rise in the production of GM crops. I asked Peter what he thought was the problem and he was unequivocal in his answer – GM crops.
Kangaroo Island may be small but, due in no small part to its unique environmental properties, is punching well above its weight in distinctive food production, more of which I’ll share with you in the coming weeks. We need to be alert to this asset in our back yard. If you are looking for a foodie getaway it should well and truly be on your radar, so stay tuned for more reasons to spend a few days across the Backstairs Passage.