Beekeeping is so much more than a hobby – it is a deep fascination and passion that grabs you, never to let go. My fascination with bees started at a very young age running around after them in my Nan’s garden as they flitted from blossom to blossom. Mom cautioning in the background “Mind, they will sting you”.
The fascination only grew as I started understanding the wonders of these beautiful insects. They are hard-working, organized and focused, all traits that I admire not only in the animal kingdom but in people as well. They are the ultimate team players with each bee fulfilling its role perfectly, no egos, simply working hard at what they do best to secure the next generation.
It is only in the latter part of my life that I became a real beekeeper with my own hives. And then I discovered native stingless bees. My first impression when I saw one was that they were ants with wings. So small, so diligent and masters at the craft of pollination.
Beekeeping has become very popular in the last few years, particularly the keeping of native stingless bees in urban environments where they thrive. I have been around beekeepers that have inspired me to be a better beekeeper. They treat their bees with a huge amount of respect and lovingly take all precautions to disrupt their hives as little as possible. I think we owe it to these hardworking insects to be the best and kindest beekeepers we can be.
So how do you get started?
Well firstly decide why you want to keep bees and what type of beekeeper you want to be. Some of the reasons for keeping bees might be to improve the pollination of your vegetables and fruit crop or contribute to their preservation. Native stingless bees are particularly suited to teaching children how to care for the environment as they don’t sting and are easy to maintain. You might enjoy their honey, which is unique and has excellent medicinal properties as well. Others simply keep them for relaxation, sitting and watching them after a long day as they rhythmically come in and out of the hive.
Having a hive is like having pets, it is a long-term commitment so be sure that you are up for it. The way to be sure would be to attend courses and do as much reading as you can before getting a hive. Native stingless bees do not cope well with cold climates so be sure that your climate is suited for them to thrive.
Now find yourself a reputable beekeeper that will provide you with all you need and guide you where needed.
What is some of the basic information you need to know when keeping native stingless bees? Firstly Australia has 11 species of native stingless bees. The most popular being Tetragonula Hockingsi and Tetragonula Carbonaria. You are most likely to get one of these species from your chosen beekeeper.
Native stingless bees have a foraging range of 500 metres so they require a plant-rich environment that has pollen, nectar and resin. They are particularly fond of native plants for which they are well adapted. So get to know your native plants and start planting or potting up if you have a small space. Locate your bees where they get morning sun, are protected from the wind and afternoon sun. You can place them on balconies, in buildings, under gazebos or trees. Native stingless bees are pest and disease resistant and only have a few pests that could invade the hive. But they have excellent defences that stave off most attacks. You can support them by ensuring the hive is off the ground so that pests like the small hive beetle find it more difficult to invade the hive.
What do you need to start?
In the beginning, all you need is a hive and bees placed in a good location. There are no standard hives such as in the honeybee world although there has been an attempt at standardising using what is termed the OATH (Original Australian Trigona Hive) hive. Important to note is that not all hives are equal. Good construction is key and although a lot of different materials are currently being used, a natural hardwood, in my opinion, is preferable because of its ability to absorb moisture and regulate temperature.
Native Stingless bees, unlike honeybees, do not have an ability to dehumidify their hives and excess water can invite all sorts of unwanted bacteria etc. The hive sides should at least be 45-47 mm thick. This mimics the wall thickness of the logs that are used in their natural environment. There are currently a lot of different hive designs and materials being used. Given that the keeping of native stingless bees is a very young science, there are many questions still unanswered. But I think that keeping things as natural and close to what is used in nature is probably a safe bet. Also to enable observation of your hive, put in an observation window, although the bees eventually cover this window up with resin it allows you, in the beginning, to observe how your bees are doing.
If you are interested in harvesting honey, get a hive that has a honey super where excess honey can be stored by the bees and harvested by you. You might also want to split your hive in the future. If so, consideration of a hive that has a good splitting system that does not disrupt the hive too much is also important.
For the next 12 months observe the bees. If the bees are carrying out debris from the hive then you know that bees are hatching and there is a cycle of life happening. Bees coming and going with full pollen sacs tells you there is enough food in their immediate environment. If it is a very dry season, give your bees supplementary feeding with a good, sugar-based syrup (recipes can be found online). Also, use your sense of smell. When there is a good run of pollen and nectar you will be able to smell the beautiful honey when standing close to your hive. All of this is an indication that your hive is growing and thriving. After 12 months you might want to split the hive or harvest honey, but that is a topic for another post.
Most importantly never stop learning. Read as much as you can and do as many courses as you can. Also, document things happening in and around your hive. That way you can contribute to the building of the science around Australian native stingless bees.[ultimatetables 18 /]