Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once calculated that if all the bees disappeared, mankind would only survive another four years. It’s not that hard to believe as these tiny, fluffy, black and yellow critters are responsible for around 80 per cent of pollination worldwide. Without them we would be unable to produce the quantity of food required.
Concern about bee numbers has created quite the buzz internationally. Recently the news that seven once abundant Hawaiian bee species are now registered on the US endangered species list was enough to spark alarm bells worldwide.
But West Australians can have their honey and eat it too, as according to Barbara Baer-Impoof a researcher at the Centre for Bee Integrated Research (CIBER) at The University of Western Australia. The West is the only place in the world where bees are disease free and not medically or chemically treated.
Baer-Impoof says it’s why WA bees and apiary products are sought-after worldwide.
“In WA you are not allowed to use any chemicals in bee hives at all,” she says.
“Everywhere else in the world bees only survive if they are treated medically, so it’s very unique in that sense.”
The Apis Mellifera or the honey bee is not native to Australia, but through Australia’s oldest breeding program, Better Bees WA, WA’s bee population continues to thrive. Baer-Impoof says WA bees are bred to be stronger, calmer and yield lots of honey without the need to medicate them against bee prone diseases such as the Varoa Mite and European Foulbrood.
“So we have a group of beekeepers who are committed to breeding bees that can withstand the WA climate, which is rather harsh,” she says.
“This program has been going on over 30 years and the beekeepers have been cooperating really well among them also the hobby beekeepers.”
Baer-Impoof says it is important to buy local honey, as any imported honey products may contain bacteria that could contaminate WA’s healthy bees.
But that shouldn’t be too hard for Western Australians, as according to the Department of Agriculture, the number of registered beekeepers has risen from 1145 in 2014 to 1875 in 2016.
Baer-Impoof says the increase is positive as it means there are more people monitoring honey bees and more local products available.
“The more people who keep bees the better for the industry. It makes it known and it makes it known that it’s important,” she says.
“People who keep bees look after them and they’re more vigilant than industrial beekeepers.
“When you have a couple of hives you check them more frequently. The more beekeepers who can look out for parasites the easier it is to detect them.”
Liam Hunt is a 22 year old carpenter by day. By night he rescues bees from suburbia
and rehouses them at his property just outside of York, where there is an abundance of wild flowers and plenty of crops to pollinate.
A scenic drive to Hunt’s property takes around an hour and a half from Perth. The concrete jungle is slowly replaced by long winding roads and rolling hills of golden wheat where solitary barns stick out like a sore thumb among the infinite fields.
Hunt lives with his mum in a little old farmhouse next to a huge tin shed. Laid out on the patio are several beehives that Hunt built out of timber off cuts. He’s adding a last layer of weather protectant to them while his girlfriend Heather Jeffries is painting a sign for the house in bright yellow and blue.
Hunt says introducing bees to the property is all part of his plan to go completely off the grid.
“I had a bee hive that arrived out the front of my property in Willetton and a guy came to remove them and he basically just killed them,” Hunt explains.
“After that day I just said ‘I’ve gotta go get myself a suit and rescue a few bees and get some honey’.”
Underneath an orange hessian shade cloth is a hand made aquaponics nursery where Hunt grows native and exotic produce. Hunt says introducing bees has made a huge difference to his garden.
“I have this horticultural passion where I want to grow fruit and obviously need pollination and the bees just do all that for me,” he says.
“Before I had to hand pollinate things like the apple tree.
“Everything is thriving now, they definitely spread the pollen more and everything has fruit.”
Hunt walks around the property, checking on each hive. He gets to a bird box in a tree where one of his hives resides, peers inside and curses. “They’re all dead,” he says. “The ants have gotten in and killed them all.” He rips the bird box out of the tree and tips it upside down, thousands of dead bees fall to the ground in a heap of rotting black and yellow.
“You’ve got to keep them away from ants and birds if you can,” he says.
“Normally you use a tin filled with oil underneath the frame so the ants can’t climb on it.
“It’s all part of the challenge but it’s disappointing because we couldn’t obviously keep them.”
While Hunt says keeping bees can be challenging, he says the honey makes it worthwhile.
“The honey I got was really, really good. It’s so different to shop-bought honey, you can definitely taste the sugar in theirs,” he says.
“But when you get a fresh one kilo tub of honey straight out of the hive there is just nothing better.”
One of Perth’s hippest restaurant owners knows just how good fresh honey can be that its fostered its own bee hives. Bib and Tucker at Leighton beach is a popular spot for foodies.
But it is the rooftop that makes this restaurant unique. The best view is saved for Bib and Tucker’s resident bees hidden away on the bleached white roof.
According to restaurant owner and Olympic gold medallist Eamon Sullivan, the bees produce a somewhat salty honey which is used in many of their dishes and sold in jars at their sister store, May Street Larder, in East Fremantle.
“We saw some restaurants doing it over east and we thought it would be great if we got a salty honey from being on the beach,” Sullivan says.
“But after learning a lot more about bees, we realise how important they are to the environment.”
Baer-Impoof says it is important that backyard beekeepers know what they’re doing and attend beginner courses.
“Hobbyist’s are there because it’s their hobby, but it is like any other pet you need to know what your doing,” she says.
Two people who clearly know what they are doing are Eddie and Sonja Naude, a couple who have been beekeeping for three years and now have 31 hives on their property in Rockingham.
On a cool evening, the Naudes head out to a property nestled amongst the ghost gums in Karnup. The sun is setting over the green tin roof and a gentle breeze creates a hush amongst the trees. The sound of soft buzzing reaching its crescendo upon approaching the patio. There, a small swarm of bees clings to a wiry tree, the thin branch weighed down by the weight of the colony.
Homeowner Ross Crawford says the decision to get someone to collect the swarm rather than exterminate it was an easy one.
“Bees are so important to the ecology of our environment and if we don’t have them the end result is we have no food to live on,” Crawford says.
“We’d like to have a beehive to support our immediate environment and get some honey out of it.”
Crawford says he has made enquiries into fostering a hive but never received response. He listens eagerly as the Naude’s explain the process of removing bees and introducing them into a new environment.
Thump. A quick shake of the branch by a white-gloved hand and the swarm disappears into a plywood box. The bees go wild in search for their queen who is safely nestled in what will be there new home for the next few weeks. They don’t attack or sting, but rush to the small hole, queuing to enter the hive like millennials at a music festival.
Eddie Naude says he and Sonja have seen such an increase in people wanting bees rescued they have had to turn people down and are looking at giving some of the hives they rescue to other bee keepers.
“We’ve had a couple of people who have been impatient and they’ve sprayed them before we get there,” Eddie Naude says.
“But I’d say majority of people will call us because they don’t want them killed.”
Naude talks to the annoyed little bees as you would talk to a baby, cooing and encouraging them to retreat into the box.
“There’s this beautiful feeling putting your bare hand in a swarm of bees, they’re all fluffy and warm,” he says fondly.