En the spring, longtime beekeeper Tony Wilsmore will start getting phone calls. People usually see his phone number on the side of the cargo bike he rides in the Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds tending to various backyard beehives in the interior north as part of his business Suburban Bees. As their garden begins to bloom and their thoughts turn outward, people want to show interest in keeping beehives.
“The first thing I do,” says Wilsmore, “is try to convince them that they shouldn’t keep bees.”
Growing up on farms and raising bees as a child, Wilsmore retired from a career in health and community services five years ago to start beekeeping full-time. He currently keeps about 22 of his own hives and tends to other hives in the interior north. Since he took over the maintenance of beehives, interest in home beekeeping has grown, with the official number of recreational beekeepers in Australia reaching over 28,000 nationwide, up from 23,000 in five years.
This global phenomenon has been fueled by a combination of factors, including increased awareness of the dwindling number of bee colonies, a need to connect with nature inspired by Covid lockdowns, and the lure of on-demand honey. via a hobby that may seem more accessible. with the advent of instructional videos on YouTube. As a result, suburban bee novices have set up hives on rooftops, balconies and backyards in cities around the world.
But this explosion of well-meaning amateur beekeepers worries some experts.
A core part of Wilsmore’s business is promoting the environmental importance of bees and increasing the number of people who keep bees, and yet when the first phone call comes in, he says, “Listen, I’m going to try to convince you not to have these.
“Once I’ve done my best and you still want to keep that cattle – because that’s what it is – I’m happy to come in and work with you to assess where you live, who you have in your household, the opportunities that you should keep bees and what are the advantages and disadvantages.
Wilsmore is encouraged by what motivates people to take up beekeeping, but he is adamant that these good intentions must be accompanied by an awareness of the responsibilities of keeping and the larger context in which their new hives are working.
Wilsmore is often the guy councils call in to deal with local swarms, a phenomenon that has grown over the years alongside the rise of backyard beekeeping and is mostly left to local councils. Risks from potential diseases in hives that are not properly monitored have also increased.
But the greatest risk to the bees themselves is insufficient habitat. A combination of habitat destruction in urban and regional areas, a trend toward smaller backyards, and an increase in bee hives in urban areas is creating greater competition for rural resources for honey bees and natives.
“I think people are forced to keep a hive because they basically want to help the bees. And my message is usually that the first step to helping bees is to plant flowers,” says Fiona Chambers, CEO of the Wheen Bee Foundation, a nonprofit bee charity.
“Before people get a hive of bees, they have to think very seriously: [are there] enough flowers, and not just in the spring, but are there enough flowers throughout the calendar year to sustain the bees? »
The foundation, which was started by Gretchen Wheen, one of Australia’s best-known beekeepers, supports research and education initiatives that address national and global threats to bees, strengthen honey and native bees , improve pollination efficiency and increase food security.
These issues inevitably lead the foundation to recognize the role of all other pollinators in our ecosystem, including native bees (of which Australia has over 2,000 species), but also beetles, wasps and moths. “It’s not just bees. The big problem facing honey bees and native bees, as well as other insects, is the lack of floral resources,” says Chambers.
A report by Curtin University researchers, published last year, found that introduced bees were more efficient and voracious at collecting food than their native counterparts. The two-year study of bee populations in Perth found that in residential areas, competition between bees and natives was particularly fierce and that the competition – in addition to habitat loss – risked putting certain native bee species in danger of disappearing or becoming extinct.
Just as introduced bees play a crucial role in pollinating our food crops, native bees are essential for supporting native habitat, and some argue they are an untapped resource to support Australian agriculture.
Pollination is a much bigger issue than honey and more valuable.
“The total value of honey products in Australia is around $120 million a year,” Chambers says. “If you look at the estimated economic value of the pollination services provided by these bees [managed and wild honeybee pollinators]it’s $14.2 billion a year.
Cedar Anderson, the co-founder and inventor of the wildly popular Flow Hive, agrees. In one of his product’s promotional videos, he says, “Honey is almost the bonus.”
“We have developed food systems that rely on the bee. Humans have taken them all over the world, wherever they go. And we know very well now that without them we will have problems,” says Anderson. “But the other part of this story is that there are also all kinds of other pollinators, [and] if you can’t keep the bees alive, chances are the environment, all the other insects, suffer as well.
In almost every recent news report on the home beekeeping phenomenon, you will find a mention of Flow Hive and its contribution to the boom in popularity. It’s been seven years since Anderson and his father Stuart, who together invented Flow Hive, saw their crowdfunding campaign explode into the most successful crowdfunding campaign ever outside of the United States. Within 15 minutes of going live, the campaign had attracted US$250,000 in pre-orders. The duo’s hive reinvents 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 doesn’t crush bees in the extraction process and which is faster and less messy.
Anderson and his father quickly realized that the appeal of their product was much broader than they imagined. “It became very clear very quickly that this was inspiring a whole new crowd of beekeepers around the world.”
Some beekeepers have criticized Flow Hive for enticing newbie beekeepers with what they claim is the suggestion that barnyard honey is as easy as turning on a tap. But others say the business has sparked renewed interest in beekeeping, presenting an opportunity to harness the enthusiasm of a captive audience.
Anderson says he and his dad decided they wanted to help educate their instant clientele. “We really got into creating content about how to keep those bees pretty quickly,” he says. “It became clear that education was key.” This was driven by a sense of responsibility to the bees, “but also a responsibility to the customers that they are successful in their new quest.”
Flow has 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 aim of creating billions of new flowers for pollinators through to 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 drawn to Flow for the appeal of the honey delivery system, but also because they are interested in helping with pollination efforts.
“Bees are a gateway insect to seeing the world in a more interconnected way where not only bees, but also humans, have a place in natural systems,” says Anderson.
“The feedback we get from people new to beekeeping is that they tend to suddenly realize the interconnectedness of what is happening in their local environment because their hives bring nectar within a 10km radius. And all of a sudden they’re like, well, wait a second. I have to put away the insecticide, get out of the habitat.
Wilsmore agrees. Besides urging newbie beekeepers to join a club, “go play with some bees” and get a feel for them before donning the costume in their own backyard, he says the best thing the “bees” can do is plant plants. . “If you’re lucky, you’ll also attract native bees. Yes. And it’s even better. »