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My suburban neighbour has bees; two of my family keep bees. We have a long-standing friendship with a professional apiarist. I would like to keep bees, but am discouraged by recurrent failure. I might also lack the eye for detail that is essential, but I have absoutely no doubt regarding the importance of bees in the environment, urban and rural. I also know that the health of hives, where the bees reproduce and socialise, can be a delicate matter due to vehicle exhaust fumes, insecticides and parasitic pests. More importantly, the floral environment from which the bees gather their nectar, and in the process fertilise it, is the bees’ pasture and source of nourishment, and it is under threat.
The goal of every living organism, including plants, is to create offspring for the next generation. Pollination is an effective mechanism in which bees excel; the act of transferring pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma to produce offspring in the form of seeds which are often contained in fruit which is consumed, and then spread by excretion. The blackberry is testimony to the effectiveness of this method. Australia’s natural flora is varied, with often highly-productive trees and understorey plants that are well suited to the needs of honeybees. However, dramatic changes in it have come from land clearing, wildfire, agricultural practices, and the change in land tenure from active management to conservation and the potential exclusion(!) of honeybees. So planting bee forage to offset major land use change and secure the food base for pollinators is in the national interest. The wellbeing and survival of global honeybee populations following the reported colony collapse disorder in the United States and Europe, and the threat to the Australian industry of the destructive varroa mite is a worrying trend.
In response, cities all over the world are embracing beekeeping. Australian cities are also showing increased awareness, with beekeeping courses sold out and urban apiaries increasing in number. Universities worldwide are offering programmes sympathetic to bee-colony health and nutrition. The University of Tasmania and TasTafe offer courses, as do aussieapiaristsonline. Many
Australian municipalities have policies in support of bee-friendly plantings, but the attitude of Tasmanian municipalities, as is so often the case, is more about regulation than constructive support. Citizens of Hobart should note that the HCC already have the most stringent conditions of any municipality in the state. Currently the regulations state that: a person may keep a maximum of two bee hives both of which must be located at least 50 metres from the nearest dwelling(!). ‘Written permission from the General Manager must be sought prior to the hives being placed on the premises’. Really? Yes! Not so long ago, a petition was launched to try to persuade the City of Hobart just to allow beekeeping in its precincts.
The concept of the urban forest involves a different way of considering urban vegetation. Urban forest is defined as the totality of trees and shrubs on all public and private land in and around urban areas. For 10 years now, the city of Paris has banned chemical products from its gardens. This is similar to the pesticide-free Ginza Precinct in Tokyo. Paradoxically, cities are well-suited for bees: they develop well in the milder city environment that provides a constant nectar source. A New York apiary hosts five hives used exclusively for teaching beekeeping and offers space for newly trained beekeepers to keep their own hives. The garden is now home to three beehives, each of which produces up to 136 kg of honey a year. It provides bee forage and is maintained by volunteers.
Many Australian streets are planted with beneficial plants and trees, both native and exotic. This has been more by accident than by design, and the addition of bee forage as a decision criterion for species selection will help build the future resource. The NSW Government inquiry into urban beekeeping estimated that there are 50,000 managed hives in its cities. Mark Leech, who wrote the recently published best seller, Keeping bees at the ends of the earth, is a
Tasmanian apiarist with a keen sense of mission. Under the auspices of the Australian Rural Industries and Development Corporation, and with the cooperation of many scientists, researchers and ordinary Australians, he has published Bee friendly, a planting guide for European honeybees and Australian native pollinators, and I drew on it in the writing of this column. If you are interested in bees or gardening, you must study it. You can download it from agrifutures.com.au, a very attractive and informative website which fills one with optimism. You will be well repaid. I found it fascinating and informative, as well as being well-written and designed.
John Fleming II, apiarist (failed)
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