I’m helping bee-lovers and apiarists, Jon and Frana McKinstry, check a backyard honey bee hive. And although it’s a Saturday morning, there’s certainly no rest on the weekend for these busy bees.
Frana is what you would call an enthusiast. She and Jon have been beekeeping in Townsville for less than four years.
“I think we’re a lot like bees. Maybe we could actually learn from them. They’re probably more civilised than we are,” Frana smiles.
The more we chat, the more I agree: the honey bee is one remarkable little creature. I can’t think of any other species that achieves so much in their lifetime, for so very little recognition.
Frana explains that in the beehive there’s a queen bee, a worker bee and a drone.
“The drones are the male bees. The queen’s a fertile female and all worker bees are infertile females.”
“The bee colony is the perfect example of an absolute democracy,” Frana says. “People have a notion that the queen bee rules the hive. Not true. No individual bee does. A lot of people refer to a beehive as a single organism with all different component parts, which is just amazing when you think about it.”
If you’ve never kept a beehive, you’ve probably never laid eyes on a male honey bee. Amazingly, every bee you’ve ever seen foraging around your garden would have been female.
Every bee is born into a specific role and spends its life serving its colony. The male drone bees fertilise the queen, the queen bee lays the eggs and the female worker bees…well they pretty much do everything else. From navigating extreme distances to lifting more than their own bodyweight, the humble female worker bee is incredibly talented. Whether it’s feeding the young, cleaning the honeycomb, fixing cracks or guarding the hive’s entrance, the female worker bee is an all-rounder, capable of almost anything it sets its mind to.
Despite Jon’s joke that it would mean a big backside, “The queen bee is what I’d rather be!”
“She hatches in fifteen days, is fed on royal jelly, and lives for years longer. Her job is to lay eggs day in day out while the attendant bees take care of her,” Jon says.
Sounds pretty good to me.
The rest of the young are set to work immediately. For the males, that means nothing more than procreation.
The drone bees are bigger in build than the worker bees. “They’ve got great big bug eyes, big hunky bodies and they can’t sting. Their job in life – their whole sole role – is to impregnate a virgin queen.” Frana smiles.
“But they only get to do it once, they die after mating with a queen.”
The rest of the duties fall to the infertile females. “Their first three weeks are domestic duties. There’re guard bees, there’re nursery bees who are responsible for feeding the young bee larvae, there’re cleaning bees and there are mortuary bees whose job is to take dead bees out and get rid of the bodies,” Frana says.
“After the first few weeks the bees then get their new duties as field bees; they become outside workers.” But after just six weeks and less than half a teaspoon of honey to their existence, the modest little worker bee dies. It seems like a lot of hard work for very little reward. But Frana explains that there’s so much more than meets the eye.
“Raw honey is literally that. It’s raw because it hasn’t been heat treated. It is unprocessed, unheated straight from the hive. When you buy supermarket honey its sourced from lots of different places and it’s all blended until it reaches a uniform colour and taste. It’s standardised. So you’re not going to get the variations in colour and taste.”
As she tends to the hive cloaked in a protective suit, the quirky Townsville apiarist explains that the colour, consistency and flavour of the honey stored inside depends on what’s flowering outside.
“There are variations from one crop to another. Even one frame to another. The colour range goes from the colour of Vegemite right through to really pale, almost chardonnay colour,” she says. Remarkably, each worker honey bee must visit about four million flowers to make one kilo of honey.That’s the equivalent of about four trips around the world for these little creatures.
That’s where the magic lies. From the apple in our puddings to the pumpkin in our pies, we have bees to thank for many everyday ingredients…not just honey.
In fact, food sources around the world rest on the furry little backs of these hardworking insects.
As bees collect the nectar and pollen for their colony, they fertilize plants. Considering they’re also known as indicators of an environment’s health, it’s worrying then that bee colonies are in decline around the world.
Thankfully, interest in beekeeping is growing rapidly, from backyard hives to urban beekeeping on top of high rises. Most towns have beekeepers’ associations or apiarist clubs, meaning almost anyone can get the help and support to keep bees. But Jon and Frana stress the importance of a healthy environment first and foremost.
“Anyone can keep bees. The main consideration for bee keeping is a diversity of plants to give them a range of quality nectar and pollen, and avoidance of pesticides,” she stresses.
Food supply is important because, sadly, there’s been a rise in urban beekeeping in some cities where there isn’t an adequate food source, effectively starving colonies of honey bees in the winter months.
The rewards speak for themselves, with vegetables from a thriving garden and jars of sticky raw honey to take home, all thanks to the hardworking bees buzzing in and out of the hive we’ve come to check on today.
with thanks to: