I dabble with bees on the farm and have done so for a few years now. Australia is fortunately blessed with native bees and plenty of other insect pollinators. The thing is though, in the first year that I introduced European honey bees to the farm, the fruit set on the fruit trees doubled over that of the previous year. Fruit set, is the fancy name for whether the flowers on a plant or tree produce fruit or not after pollination – and it is the pollinating insects that do the hard work in that process and as far as European honey bees are concerned, they're heavyweights in the pollinating insect world.
European honey bees are quite prolific gatherers of plant pollen, plant nectar and water which they use to turn into the very desirable product: honey. The native bees aren’t even close to producing the sort of superabundance of honey that the European bee species can produce. In fact, this far south in a cool climate, the native bees will not produce any excess honey at all.
I like eating honey, using it to cook with and also for making mead (which is an alcoholic honey and water based drink). Honey contains at least 80% sugar so it is an almost perfect source of sugar for cool climates such as the farm here. It would take an awful lot of global warming before I could easily grow sugar cane here (which is the plant source for sugar). The old timers used to grow sugar beets, which will happily grow here, but they’re only 20% sugar, whilst most other fruits have much lower sugar content again. Nothing at all beats honey for supplying sugar in cool to cold climates.
However, the bees want to eat their honey, which is why they store it in the first place. It is their winter food store and they require that stored honey just to get the colony through the brutal winters that they evolved in. Winters in many parts of the world are far harsher than here and the European honey bees keep their hives warm by eating the stored honey.
It has been the coldest winter here in 26 years however, if the daytime temperature goes above about 10’C (50’F) at any time of the year, the European honey bees will be out and about enjoying the warmth and collecting pollen and nectar.
I grow flowers just for the bees (and the editor too!) and there are flowers of many different types all year around here so that even on the coldest days some brave plants are sporting flowers and the bees know all about them because when that sun shines, they will be busily going about their bee business and enjoying those flowers.
Over the past few years, I have had at least five different European bee colonies here at the farm. Four of them have died. Three of them collapsed over a period of three days two years ago. During those three days the temperature exceeded 40’C (104’F) in the shade - every day - and the wax in the frames simply melted. The bees as a colony did not die, they abandoned their hives in haste and moved to cooler conditions in the shade of the forest. In effect, I have populated the surrounding forest with European honey bees – and just to tease me they visit the farm regularly to let me know just how well they are doing out in the forest somewhere. The other colony died because it was attacked by ants very early in the season when the colony had not recovered from the winter.
As a disclaimer, I have not harvested any honey at all from any bee hive at the farm since I commenced the (expensive) hobby of bee keeping three years ago.
And I’m not the only one who is having troubles with European honey bees. Last summer alone, I believe that about 40% of the colonies on this continent died over the summer due to the extreme weather conditions. It is worth noting that because of Australia’s relative isolation, many bee problems have never even arrived here (such as the Varroa mite which is devastating colonies on every other continent).
European honey bees are fair dinkum hard little workers and all I reckon is that they deserve a chance!
As a general rule I avoid bee community groups because even despite the massive quantity of bee colony die offs all over the planet, they are some of the most dogmatic people I have ever encountered. And that is saying something. As a general observation, it is a most impressive achievement to maintain dogmatic beliefs in the face of absolute disaster! I say instead: Give bees a chance!
I appreciated failures at the farm (although not too frequently I hope - edit) because that is generally the time that I have to stand up and admit what went wrong and then learn from those errors. Most of the time I have to then repair the mistake and correct the underlying errors!
So this week I began constructing a slightly different type of bee hive, which as far as I know is a completely original design. If anyone wishes to duplicate this design, feel free as long as you acknowledge me as the source of the design.
|The author commences production of an entirely new type of bee hive this week|
The first thing that you’ll notice is that the bee hive is constructed from heavy duty hardwood. The reason for this is that I have observed that bees in the forest live in logs and tree hollows. The thicker timber in those natural bee habitats provides a greater level of insulation from the external temperatures during the winter and summer. My thinking behind using thicker hardwood is that honey is the bees natural winter food storage and if they are subjected to cold temperatures, they will consume far more stored honey as an energy source just to keep the colony warm. The standard commercial available frames here use very thin pine and it is just not up to the job of providing any insulation between the colony and the external environment. The thin pine is cheap though.
I also added in an observation port which is constructed of double glazed 8mm (0.31 inch) perspex. It will eventually have a hinged plywood flap covering that perspex so that the bees can enjoy their darker conditions – which they prefer (the insides of a log are usually dark).
The new hive also takes the standard commercially available wax frames. The old timers have a saying: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”. That saying is relevant here because, whilst I acknowledge that there are issues relating to cell size in commercially produced wax sheets (and possible contamination too), it is better to start the colony with a bit of assistance in the early days.
The design also allows for a fewer number of frames than the standard eight or ten frames. In the photo above you can see a single frame hanging in the hive box. When bees are purchased down under you are normally supplied with a package of bees in five frames (the fancy name for this is a nuc box). You may receive that package in early spring which is a cold time of year and the bees have very few stores to get properly established. The standard commercial boxes include space for eight frames (whereas the nuc is five frames) but all of that extra space in the standard box means that the bees have to heat an even larger area just to stay warm. In my design there will be movable sheets of plywood at either end of the frames so that new frames can be added and the bees can fill whatever space they require. And with the observation port I can quickly see how the colony is going without having to open the box and losing whatever precious heat that they have stored in that hive.
|Construction of the detachable roof for the new bee hive was commenced|
The roof to the new hive is designed to shed rainfall off and away from the holes that the bees use to enter and leave the colony. That seems common sense to me, but the standard hives have flat roofs and rain can simply fall onto the bees landing strip and run into the hive. And if the hive is not totally level rainfall will run downhill of the opening and into the hive itself. Honestly, how hard is it having a roof that sheds rainfall? Flat roofs do make for cheaper hive boxes though.
Observant readers will note that there is a layer of flat plywood which sits just underneath the triangle roof supports. The purpose of this plywood is ensure that condensation does not drip down onto the bee hive frames. Many people down under use cloth mats and other such items to perform this function, however, those mats sit on top of the frames which can potentially hold moisture against the frames.
Readers with a good memory will recall that I like making mead which is an alcoholic drink which only has three items: Honey; Water; and Yeast. It really is that simple to make! Yeasts are literally all over the planet so whilst you can never be sure what sort of yeasts you’ll find in your area, if you throw a party for yeasts, some of them are guaranteed to turn up! The bees provide the honey. And whilst the bees enjoy access to fresh water to create their honey, too much water in a hive will definitely ferment the honey and produce mead – which whilst I’m quite happy with – the bees can’t actually consume without detrimental health problems.
|The plywood roof and ridge capping was then installed onto the new bee hive|
It looks like a dog kennel rather than a bee hive doesn’t it? And perhaps that is where the inspiration came from for the design. The roof plywood was rescued from an old door that had been removed from the old chicken run and had been out in the rain during this past month or two, so I’m leaving the hive construction for a week or so to dry off before it receives a good lick of quality paint.
There is still a bit more work to do on the bee hive, but it is getting closer to completion and I’ll include photos over the next few months to show how it performs in the real world.
It wasn’t all about bees this week though as I was collecting, cutting and burning rotten timber in the surrounding forest. This forest has been actively logged since the 1860’s so there is all manner of fallen and discarded timber lying around down below the farm and it is a serious fire hazard.
|Burn off of rotten timber way down below on the edge of the farm|
As I was working the forest, with the magpie bird clearly enjoying that work, I noticed just beyond the area of the fire two very large fallen trees lying on the ground. Clearly they’d been there for decades and when they fell over and they had even lifted the clay out of the ground leaving behind a pit. I thought that I’d take a closer look.
|Close up of the pit left behind when the very large tree fell over|
What I found was that there were two very large and well maintained wombat holes under the closest tree. This perhaps is the abode of Fatso the very large and well fed wombat that cruises the orchard most nights (when it is not raining of course as no sensible wombat would ever venture forth for an adventure if it was raining).
I’ve completely run out of time yet again this week to talk about house construction, so I promise we’ll get back to it again next week!
The temperature outside here at about 9.15pm is 4.2’C degrees Celsius (39.6’F). So far this year there has been 569.4mm (22.4 inches) of rainfall which is up from last week's total of 544.0mm (21.4 inches). Oh yeah, this past week was very wet!