Honey trap- is there a downside to the boom in beekeeping?
Every spring, longtime beekeeper Tony Wilsmore will start getting phone calls. Usually people see his phone number on the side of the cargo bike that he rides around the Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds, tending to various backyard hives in the inner north as part of his business Suburban Bees. As their garden starts blooming and thoughts turn to outside, people want to register their interest in keeping hives.
‘The first thing I do,’ says Wilsmore, ‘is try to convince them that they should not keep bees.’
Having grown up on farms and keeping bees as a kid, Wilsmore retired from a career in health and community services five years ago to start beekeeping full-time. He currently keeps around 22 of his own hives and tends to other hives around the inner north. Since he returned to maintaining hives, interest in backyard beekeeping has surged, with official numbers of recreational beekeepers in Australia climbing to over 28,000 nationally, up from 23,000 within five years.
This global phenomenon has been fuelled by a combination of factors, including an increased awareness of the dwindling numbers of honeybee colonies, a need to connect to nature inspired by Covid lockdowns, and the appeal of honey on demand via a hobby that may seem more accessible with the advent of YouTube instructional videos. As a result, suburban bee novices have set hives on roofs, balconies and backyards in cities around the world.
But this explosion of well-meaning amateur beekeepers has some experts concerned.
A core part of Wilsmore’s business is to promote the environmental importance of bees and increase the number of people keeping bees, and yet when the initial phone call comes through, he says- ‘Look, I’m going to try and convince you not to have these.
‘After I’ve done my best and you still want to keep these livestock – because that’s what they are – I’m happy to come around and work with you to assess where you live, who you have in your household, the opportunities that you’ve got to keep bees and what the upsides and downsides are.’
Wilsmore is encouraged by what drives people’s desire to start beekeeping, but he’s adamant those good intentions have to be matched by an awareness of the responsibilities of keeping livestock, and the wider context that their new hives operate within.
Wilsmore is often the guy councils call to tend to local swarms, a phenomenon that’s increased over the years alongside the rise of backyard beekeeping and is mostly left to local councils to deal with. The risks around potential disease in hives that aren’t properly monitored has also increased.
But the biggest risk for the bees themselves comes down to insufficient habitat. A combination of the destruction of habitat in both urban and regional areas, a trend towards smaller backyards, and an increase in honeybee hives in urban areas creates more competition for rural resources for both honeybees and native bees.
‘I think people are compelled to keep a beehive because they fundamentally want to help the bees. And my message is usually the first step to helping bees is to plant flowers,’ says Fiona Chambers, CEO of the Wheen Bee Foundation, a not-for-profit charity for bees.
‘Before people get a hive of bees, they need to think very seriously- [are there] enough flowers, and not just in spring, but are there enough flowers across the calendar year to support the bees?’
The foundation, which was started by Gretchen Wheen, one of Australia’s best-known beekeepers, supports research and education initiatives that address the national and global threats to bees, strengthen honey and native bees, improve pollination efficiency and increase food security.
Those issues inevitably lead the foundation to recognise the role of all the other pollinators in our ecosystem, not least native bees (of which Australia has over 2,000 species) but also including beetles, wasps and moths. ‘It’s not just about bees. The big issue facing both honeybees and native bees, and other insects, is lack of floral resources,’ says Chambers.
A report by researchers at Curtin University, released last year, found that introduced honeybees were more effective and voracious in gathering food than their native counterparts. The two-year study of bee populations in Perth found that in residential areas, competition between honeybees and natives was especially fierce and that competition – in addition to habitat loss – risked putting some native bee species under threat of becoming endangered or extinct.
Just as introduced honeybees play a crucial role in pollinating our food crops, native bees are essential when it comes to supporting native habitat, and some argue are an untapped resource for supporting Australian agriculture.
Pollination is an issue much bigger than honey, and more valuable.
‘The total value of honey product in Australia is about $120m a year,’ says Chambers. ‘If you look at the estimated economic value of the pollination services provided by those honeybees [managed and wild honeybee pollinators], it’s $14.2bn per year.’
Cedar Anderson, the co-founder and inventor of the wildly popular Flow Hive, agrees. In one of the promotional videos for his product, he says- ‘Honey is almost the bonus.’
‘We have developed food systems that rely on the honeybee. Humans have dragged them around the world, wherever they go. And we know very well now that without them we’re in trouble,’ says Anderson. ‘But the other part of that story is that there’s all sorts of other pollinators as well, [and] if you can’t keep honeybees alive, then it’s likely the environment, all of the other insects, are suffering as well.’
In almost every recent news report on the backyard beekeeping phenomenon you’ll find a mention of Flow Hive and their contribution to the boom in popularity. It has been seven years since Anderson and his father Stuart, who together invented Flow Hive, watched as their crowdfunding campaign blew up to become the most successful crowdfunding campaign ever outside the US. Within 15 minutes of going live, the campaign had attracted US$250,000 in preorders. The duo’s hive reimagines the way honey is extracted (it comes out of a tap) after Anderson, a beekeeper since the age of six, was inspired to create a system that didn’t crush bees in the extraction process, and was more time efficient and less messy.
Anderson and his dad quickly realised their product’s appeal was far wider than they imagined. ‘It became very clear very quickly that it was inspiring a whole new crowd of beekeepers in the world.’
Some beekeepers have been critical of Flow Hive for attracting novice beekeepers with what they argue is the suggestion that backyard honey is as easy as turning on a tap. But others argue the company has generated a renewed interest in beekeeping, and that presents an opportunity to harness the enthusiasm of a captive audience.
Anderson says he and his father decided they wanted to help inform their instant customer base. ‘We really got quite quickly into making content around how to keep these bees,’ he says. ‘It just became clear that education was the key.’ This was motivated by a sense of responsibility towards the bees, ‘but also a responsibility for the customers that they’re successful in their new pursuit’.
Flow have since invested in a series of education and regeneration programs, including an online beekeeping course and the Billions of Blossoms project launched earlier this year with the goal of creating billions of new flowers for pollinators through a mix of reforestation and habitat protection and funded in part by their beekeeping course.
Anderson says about half of their customers are new to beekeeping and are attracted to Flow for the appeal of the honey delivery system, but also because they’re interested in contributing to pollination efforts.
‘The honeybees are a gateway insect into viewing the world in a more interconnected way where not only honeybees, but humans, have a place in the natural systems,’ explains Anderson.
‘The feedback we get from people that are new to beekeeping is that they tend to suddenly realise the interconnectedness of what’s going on in their local surrounds because their hives are bringing in nectar from a 10km radius. And all of a sudden they’re like, well, hang on a second. I need to put away the insecticide, get out the habitat.’
Wilsmore agrees. Apart from urging novice beekeepers to go join a club, ‘go and play with some bees’, and get a feel for them before they don the suit in their own backyard, he says the best thing ‘bee people’ can do is plant plants. ‘If you’re lucky, you’ll be attracting some native bees as well. Yes. And that’s even better.’
(News Source -Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Times Of Nation staff and is published from a www.theguardian.com feed.)
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