Author Talk with Doug Purdie
The Bee Friendly Garden
Talks / Lecture
Self-professed ‘beevangelist,’ and co-founder of The Urban Beehive Doug Purdie guides gardeners to transform our backyards into bug nirvanas, helping save our bees one plant at a time.
Transcript of ‘Author Talk with Doug Purdie’
Speakers: Kathryn Favelle(KF), Doug Purdie (DP)
Location: National Library of Australia
KF: Welcome to the National Library. If you’re a local I hope you’ve had your democracy sausage already. Mine’s ... I hope will still be waiting for me after today’s event. From those of you who don’t know me I’m Katherine Favell and I have the very great pleasure of looking after the Library’s community programs, days like today and we have a big week actually of programs coming up so hopefully you’ll come back after today and join us for some more wonderful events.
As we begin today I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land that we’re on, the Ngunnawal and Nanbury people and thank them and their elders past and present for looking after this land that we now have the privilege to live on and call home.
I’ve had a little sneak preview of today’s conversation. We’re going to think about and talk about how we can save the world one bee at a time through our backyards and our gardens. Joining us is our self-professed beevangelist, Doug Purdie. Doug is the cofounder of the Urban Bee Hive which manages over 100 bee hives on city rooftops, balconies, backyards and in community gardens around Sydney. He teaches beginner beekeeping courses so if you’re inspired today you can join him in Sydney to learn more. He’s the President of the Sydney Branch of the Amateur Beekeepers’ Association and he’s the author of two books, Backyard Bees and his latest, The Bee Friendly Garden which I think probably wins the prize for the most beautiful cover published this year. Today Doug’s going to ask you to think like a bee and he’s going to inspire us to transform our backyards and balconies into bug nirvanas to help save our bees one plant at a time. Please join me in welcoming Doug Purdie.
DP: Thank you. I’m just going to get myself a glass of water ‘cause I’ll ... I should have done that earlier. I think I can put it there. Great. Thank you. Thanks for coming. Are there any beekeepers in the rooms? Great, a couple so I can get away with a few lies before I get lynched. Look ... your husband’s a beekeeper? Excellent. We want more bees in the garden, that’s what it should be all about. Look, it’s ... I mean I never set out to become a beekeeper, my background’s not in beekeeping. About 2005 I was selling honey for my local community association and the honey had been given to me by a local beekeeper and you know as happens at these sort of market stalls people were asking questions about the honey and for me I put honey on my toast and that was about it, I had no other interest apart from that and anyway I did the research to try and answer these people’s questions and I was horrified to discover that bees are in trouble all around the world and basically made it my mission to try and do something about that.
And so that led me to become a beekeeper and my first sort of experiences were going to my local beekeeping association which was about a 45 minute drive from my house so it wasn’t really local and going to this meeting which was filled with mainly quite elderly men and the guy running the meeting was deaf and had a gavel and that’s how the meetings ran. And you know that was not so long ago, that was only a short time ago, it was about 2005 when I started doing that and you know in about 10 years it’s amazing how beekeeping has changed and now lots of younger people are interested in being beekeepers and lots of women are interested in being beekeepers, my business partner’s a woman so you know it’s all changed which is a wonderful thing because people are now thinking about bees and maybe starting to take those steps that I was ... I took when I went from being a consumer of honey on my crumpets to actually making it in my own backyard.
And the wonderful thing about bees is that you know they don’t need a lot but somehow we’ve changed our environment to actually remove what they need so you know bees have been around an awfully long time, they evolved pre-dinosaurs so they evolved with the first flowers that needed pollination and you know about the last hundred years or so we’ve actually worked out how to kill them properly and we’re doing a marvellous just at the moment, you know? It’s amazing, overseas bees are in a lot more trouble than they are in Australia you know in Australia bees are relatively okay as far as the introduced bee, the European honeybee and you know the things that are killing the European honeybee all around the world is a thing called Varroa mite. I don’t know how many of you know of Varroa but it’s quite a big problem and up until about two months ago Australia didn’t have Varroa and we were the only continent on earth that didn’t have Varroa and then on an introduced bee that we’ve got up in Queensland that came in on boat mast, they discovered Varroa in Townsville and it’s a different Varroa to the one that’s doing all of the damage around the world but it has the ability to jump species and can jump from this Asian honeybee across to our European honeybee as it did in New Guinea and if that happens it’ll be absolutely devastating for our European honeybee populations.
So overseas where that’s happened about 90% of the managed beehives have died within that first sort of 12 month period so it’s absolutely devastating. And it puts Australia in a bad place because Australia hasn’t relied on migratory beekeepers so migratory beekeepers are those beekeepers that throw a whole lot of beehives on the backs of trucks and drive them around to do pollination services for agriculture. When bees were brought to Australia so they were brought to New South Wales in 1822 and the rest of Australia around the same time, bees just took off and they populated you know all the bushland because Australia’s a very nectar-rich country and so there's lot ... these bees are still around, there’s lots of feral beehives in Australian bush and for the most part those feral beehives are the ones that do the pollination of all the commercial crops that are grown with the exception of a couple of crops like almonds. So our farmers don’t need to employ beekeepers to bring in beehives to do pollination. If Varroa or if that Varroa jumps species or we ... worst still we get Varroa destructor, the really bad one in Australia and we lose a lot of those managed beehives, we’ll also lose all the unmanaged beehives which means that our farmers won’t have beekeepers to ... or won’t have bees to do any of the pollination and that puts Australia in a pretty bad spot.
And pollination’s important so I often get people ... and I do lots of these sorts of talks you know and often get people say to me that you know I don’t eat flowers and I don’t really need this pollination stuff and it’s really interesting because people are quite disconnected from what pollination actually is. I saw a marvellous thing on TV with Jamie Oliver in the US and he was talking to kids, 16 year olds, about where honey comes from and he had like this big poster and the poster had ... it had a honeydew melon, it had a honey bear and it had a honeybee and almost none of the kids picked the honeybee, most of them picked the melon and the bear as being where honey came from which is astounding. Hopefully ... I haven’t tried that in Australia but hopefully that doesn’t happen here. But you know people are disconnected from it. And I say to people you know pollination’s really important for our food chain, I think Greenpeace estimates about 90% of the nutritious food that we eat is pollinated you know and it’s very, very important and that’s just ... things ... when you think of pollination people think of things like apples you know and they need pollinating, sure, and they think of citrus but it’s all sorts of bizarre things like lettuce needs pollinating and it’s not because we eat the lettuce fruit ‘cause there isn’t one but to grow lettuces you need lettuce seed and without pollination you don’t get lettuce seed so you can’t grow more lettuces.
Things like lucerne you know hay needs pollinating, hemp needs pollinating, cotton needs pollinating, it just goes on and so I like to say rightly or wrongly that if we don’t need have bees and we don’t have pollination that we’re going to be naked and hungry because we won’t have a lot of the food that we want to eat and what’s left is mainly wind-pollinated things which tends to be grains and our stock will want to eat those grains so we’ll be competing with our stock to eat that stuff so we probably won’t have as much stock which means we won’t have leather and we won’t have wool and we won’t have a lot of those things we’re used to having and it’ll just basically plunge us back into probably pre-dinosaur times again. So hopefully that doesn’t happen and the idea behind writing this sort of book is to help people make little changes that will make a big difference so all around the world people are looking at pollinators and how we can help them, in particular native pollinators and you know here in Australia we have about let’s say 2,000 species of native bee and many of those have specific jobs so they’ve evolved with flowers and they have you know a long tongue or a short tongue or a particular weight or a particular feature that makes them quite specific about the flowers that they pollinate.
And so these flowers and the bees have grown to have a symbiotic relationship and if you lose that particular native bee then you will lose the flower that it’s designed to pollinate and vice versa so we want to really try and help our native bee populations and the way that we can do that is by planting things. So if you go and walk outside here ... actually I was really impressed on the way from the airport to see a lot of flowering weeds in the grass. Flowering weeds are great, weeds are fantastic for nectar production and pollen and it was really encouraging to see those still there because often they get mowed, soon as they pop their heads up they get mowed or herbicide comes out and they get rid of them so they were really good to see. And you know apart from those you’ll see a lot of grass and there’s not much else and it’s become a bit of a trend you know architects ... I was doing a bit of architect-bashing before you guys came you know architects are really into having these very, very stark gardens at the moment and they’ll have a bit of grass and maybe some spiky plants, architectural plants, they call them, few yuccas maybe, you know? Yuccas are amazing because a yucca flowers once and then dies, that’s it, never flowers again and so we have these sort of architectural gardens that are low maintenance but they’re effectively deserts for any of our pollinators.
So I came up with the bee goggles and the idea was that if you went out into your backyard or any space and put your bee goggles on and had a look at the space from the perspective of a bee and see what food there is available and if you do that I think you ’d be surprised because a lot of gardens don’t have very much flowering at all or many parts of the year they’re completely barren and there’s no food there and so a bee is looking for pollen and nectar, those are the two things and so if you don’t provide those there’s no food for bees and it’s not just bees, it’s a whole lot of beneficial insects and you know the beneficial insects also bring birds in and so you know all of our sort of ecosystem requires the basics of nectar and pollen. And when I talk about people bringing bees into gardens people get a bit panicky because they think the bees are going to get out there and sting them and it’s perfectly natural to have bees in the environment. Bees aren’t out there to get you you know and they’re doing their own thing ‘cause they came from a long time ago and as wonderful as you might think you look today you don’t look like a flower and the bees are going to avoid you, they’re going to go to the flowers unless you’re threatening towards them.
So it ... that’s a real thing you know in the US where they have ... in the White House they have a ... they call it a butterfly garden and they put this butterfly garden in for all of the pollinators and really it’s there for bees but they call it a butterfly garden so that people aren’t scared of the fact that it’s attracting bees which is ... yeah, it’s pretty interesting, isn’t it? So what you need to do is put your bee googles on and then go out and have a look in the garden and see what you’ve got flowering and your aim should be to always have two things flowering all year ‘round. I don’t mean like two individual plants, I mean two types of plant and to try and have groups of those plants so that you’ve got sort of uneven areas of different plants flowering all year ‘round. And that’s your ultimate aim and if you achieve that then you’re achieving a garden that’s great for pollinators. And it’s not that hard, you know? The other thing that’s good is disorder so for all of you that keep being told to go out there and clean up the backyard, don’t clean up the backyard. What you want is disorder, you don’t want to mow the weeds, you know? You don’t want to take away all of the dead wood, you don’t want to mulch the earth banks and so forth, you want to try and leave all of that sort of stuff because all of that habitat you know and that’s where bees and other insects live.
The other thing you need to think about too is your use of things like insecticide so lots of people ... well you think about it, you can go to your local supermarket and you can buy a thing you stick on the back of the wall that sprays out insecticide every 15 minutes to kill any insects that are coming in to your barbeque or whatever. And it’s remarkable, they sell quite a lot of those things whereas it used to be only ... I don’t know, when I was a kid which was like yesterday you used to actually put on you know Aveagoodweekend, you’d put on an insect repellent rather than something that kills the insects you know you just got to go to your local hardwood store and have a look at the amazing aisle of every insecticide you can imagine on the earth that’s available in these aisles to kill everything and it’s a problem you know we don’t need to kill everything, there are times when you have to use these things but for the most part the ecosystem takes care of itself.
The problem with using an insecticide is that it kills everything so the predators are killed as well so if you’ve got ... I don’t know, an aphid problem and you go in there and spray them with insecticide you’re killing off the lacewings and all the other insects that actually grow to predate on the aphids and so the system will always be out of whack. Whereas if you hold back it will eventually catch up as it’s meant to, as there’s more food available the predators that rely on that food will increase in volume and take care of the problem and then die off as the food disappears you know and that’s the way the cycle’s supposed to work. You come in there with your insecticide and you make a big mess and so you’ll need to think about that and reel back the use of that stuff. Herbicides is the other one, herbicides are terrible things. There's lots of research that’s being done that’s pointing the finger at herbicides being the cause for a whole lot of problems but basically if it’s killing things it can’t be good and so anything with the word cide at the end of it you need to worry about.
Fungicide’s another one, really bad. People tested fungicide with bees as they have with herbicides and they’ll go oh look, the herbicide’s fine, we’ve tested the active ingredient in the herbicide, it doesn’t kill bees. And they’re right but what happens is they make a concoction of these things so they stick stuff in the solution to make it work better and one of the things they stick in the solutions are surfactants and the surfactants make the herbicides spread better over the leaves of the plant that you’re trying to deal with and unfortunately the surfactants are poisonous and kill the insect but they don’t test that ‘cause they’re only testing the active ingredient and the same goes on for a whole lot of chemicals that are available for use in the average garden from your local hardware store. So you need to reel back on those as well and maybe let nature take its course a little bit.
Fungicides are a great one because they actually thought the fungicides were really fine for use with bees and then they discovered that bees store pollen so right, when you see a bee on a flower it’s collecting nectar and pollen ... they also collect water but that’s another story ... so when it’s ... this plant has been sprayed with a fungicide usually it’s in the pollen and they take that fungicide back to the beehive and what we didn’t realise is that when they store pollen they’re storing a whole lot of yeasts with that pollen and the fungicide kills off the funguses so it kills off the yeast and the beehives become much, much weaker than they would have otherwise so the fungicide isn’t actually killing the bees but it’s having this long-term effect on the health of the beehive. So what I say to people is okay, rethink what you’re doing there and maybe don’t use a fungicide, don’t use a herbicide, go back to the old way, pull the weeds out by hand or you know use mulch or other covers to kill the weeds. Don’t spray insecticides unless you absolutely have to and it’s very rare that you have to but you do have to sometimes. You know and go back to other ways of doing it.
There’s a photo of a book of me out in my backyard with the vacuum cleaner sucking up stink bugs. Don’t use a good vacuum cleaner ‘cause you’ll get in trouble so I used one out of my garage which I won’t get in trouble for using but you know it’s incredible effective and it’s those sort of things that you can do rather than spraying them whereas I could have gone to the hardware store and got a spray that would kill the stink bugs you know ‘cause they’re horrible things, they squirt out very, very caustic solution, they can blind you and they can burn your fingers if you go and grab them or ... whereas they can’t burn the vacuum cleaner so it’s the ultimate tool, it’s very satisfying too ‘cause they rattle as you catch them.
So I might digress away from plants a little bit and talk a little bit about what’s going inside the beehive seeing as there’s not so many beekeepers in here and people usually find what’s going on in a beehive fairly interesting. I deal with bees every day so for me I know what’s going on in there and I quite ... I find bees quite cute which might be surprising to those of you who aren’t beekeepers but bees are very cute and there’s nothing better than siting by the beehive and watching bees come and go and looking at the coloured pollen on their legs and wondering where on earth that came from because there’s amazing array of pollens that are out there.
So anyway inside the beehive you’ve got three basic sorts of bee, the queen bee who isn’t in charge although it’s amazing how much the society's built around the queen bee being in charge or sayings and so forth but it’s not true, it’s actually a democracy. And then you have the worker bees who are all female so if you see a bee out there doing work it’s a female bee, it’s a worker bee and by work I mean anything so if you see a bee doing anything it’s a worker bee and it’s female. And the third sort of bee that you have is the drone which are the boy bees and a few interesting facts so the worker bee and the queen bee both come from fertilised eggs and the only thing that makes a queen bee is the egg gets fed a huge amount of royal jelly and it’s a thing called epigenetics which is a fascinating topic which I won’t talk about today ‘cause that’s not what you’re here for but Google it ‘cause epigenetics is fascinating and it applies to humans as well. And anyway lots of royal jelly causes certain genes to be switched on and other genes to be turned off and it creates quite a different insect. Then you have the drones, the boys, and the drones come from unfertilised eggs so they don’t have fathers, they only have grandfathers which all seems a bit weird to us, being humans but in the insect world that’s quite normal. And genetically it has its own interesting features.
So anyway so the worker bees do all the work, there’s about 80,000 of those in a beehive, there’s one queen bee whose job is just to lay eggs and she lays 2,000 eggs a day and about 2,000 bees die a day and are replaced by the ones that have been laid and then you have the drones. So about 2% of the beehive is drones and drones, between about 10am and 3pm, they hang out in drone congregation areas which a lot of us beekeepers refer to as the pub ‘cause the drones aren’t doing any work and they just ... they can’t even feed themselves, right? They actually have to be fed and they hang out in the drone congregation areas and they’re looking for virgin queens and so drones, if you look at a drone, a drone’s quite a big bee, no stinger, massive eyes like really, really big eyes and that’s so that he can see the virgin queens. So all the boys hang out together in the pub, the drone congregation area and they wait ‘til a virgin queen flies past and then as soon as one flies past all the drones take off and the first one to get there wins the prize.
Now unfortunately for him his genitals get ripped off in the process of doing this and he falls to the ground dead and you assume that he’s happy about this and probably has a bee smile on his face or something. For the boys that don’t succeed in doing that during their lives, come autumn there’s no more virgin queens left so they really only raise queens during sort of spring and summer and that means that those boys are a drain on the hives so what the queens do ... bees do, rather, is pick up those drones and physically haul them out of the beehive and dump them outside and they die of exposure. Sometimes they chew their wings off so they can’t get back in and so it’s pretty sad, you see all these boys being carted out ready to die of exposure and so what happens when I talk to groups like this, all the boys that were in the room that were going hey, that’s pretty good, don’t have to do much, get fed, don’t do any work you know hang out in the pub, it’s got a bad bit to the story which is if you hang around for a whole season you’re dead, you die of exposure and that’s sort of the way it works.
The other thing about the queen is she mates with a whole lot of drones so she mates with about 30, they reckon and she has to fill up an organ that’s called a spermitheca with semen and so she mates with all these drones and eventually fills up that organ and away she goes, she’s got her life’s semen and so she never mates again after that short period at the beginning of her life and she uses up the semen until it runs out. And if it runs out early or if the bees don’t notice that she’s running out because she starts to lay more drones ... you can tell in a beehive if a queen’s getting old ... if the bees don’t notice the beehive will die because they need worker bees, they need a worker bee egg or just a fertilised egg to raise another queen. Which sometimes happens or the beekeeper will come in and do something about it. So people often ask how long does a queen live? And she lives as long as her semen lasts, basically.
And yeah then the beekeeper will usually do something about it if the bees haven’t noticed and done something about it themselves. There’s also ... people will often say you only ever find one queen in a beehive which is not true, sometimes you find two which is fairly weird when you do that and it’s part of supersedure, when the bees realise the queen’s wearing out they raise another one and sometimes the two coexist inside the beehive for a while before the one that’s wearing out’s disposed of. The bees don’t ... the bees are not very emotional, it’s funny how a lot of people put human emotions on the beehive and I was re-queening a lot of hives yesterday which involves basically finding the queen and squashing her and the bees almost immediately pick them up and chuck her out the front like it’s ... there’s no funeral. You know the who ... Thailand’s mourning for a year, none of that in the bee world, they just chuck them out the front and get ready for the new one to come along you know it’s amazing.
I was talking a bit before about how the democracy works inside a beehive and that’s a fascinating thing. This guy made a ... sort of his life’s work to study bee democracy and he wrote a book about it which is about ... I don’t know, it’s thicker than mine, it’s quite impressive. I’ve only read about half of it, I got a bit bogged down before I finished it and what he did was he took bees to part of America that has no bees and he took bees there every year and then ... he had a lot of PhD students to work which sound like very useful things, I wish I had a few spare when we’re busy in spring, and what the PhD students was went and colour-coded all the bees and all the beehives by putting little dots of paint on their backs. And then they all then ran around following the bees all around the island recording where all the coloured ... what coloured bee had gone where and what they worked out is that bees go and measure potential sites so where they think they’re going to swarm to and they go and step out the inside of these sites to measure the volume and looking for about 30 litres’ volume we’ve since worked out.
And they go back to the beehive and they do this thing called the waggle dance to tell the other bees what they’ve found. And the waggle dance is really cool ... I’ll just digress for a moment into the waggle dance ... waggle dance is really cool so if you imagine this, if we turn the lights off and had no light in here at all and I said to you tell me how to get back to the airport and you can only do it by dancing that’s the waggle dance. So the bees use this dance to tell other bees how to find a flower or a water source or a pollen source up to 8km from their beehive purely by dancing. And so the dance has a few elements that ... a guy called Karl von Frisch decoded the dance so we know how it works but basically the dance indicates distance and how far ... like this distance and how far ... yeah, good one ... indicates distance and basically using the sun and the angle of the sun and sort of the ... like the general direction they need to go in and the bees can actually quite accurately find these sites again based on that piece of information just from a dance which is remarkable.
And in the UK someone using a whole lot of other PhD students spent a whole year recording the waggle dances of all the bees that came back to this beehive and what they worked out was that in summer ... ‘cause they actually spent ... they spent a whole year recording like videoing them and then they spent a lot of other time decoding those waggle dances like with a screen and a protractor and working it out and they did a thematic map around the beehive showing where the bees were foraging for a whole year and what they discovered was that in summer when there should be a lot more food around the bees had to go much, much further to get their food. And it was based on farming practices so if you go and look at farming, most farming these days is fairly intensive and what they’re trying to do is squeeze out the most they can out of that small piece of land they’ve got to work with or in some cases very large piece of land they’ve got to work with by removing as much competitive plants as they can and only planting what the crop that they want to harvest. And so what that means is there’s less food around for bees because there’s a lot of dirt and not a lot of wildflowers or weeds or anything else ‘cause we’ve removed them all and it was a bit of a shock to discover that the bees had to go much, much further to get food when they should have been much closer to the beehive.
And so lots of research has been done on that and done on planting wildflowers around crops and what a difference it makes. So in the US they did a study with blueberries and blueberries are part of the night shade family, they need buzz pollination. Buzz pollination, am I talking ..? Cool. So buzz pollination’s amazing stuff so the nightshade family has things like potatoes, tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, blueberries, those sort of things, there’s a whole range of stuff. And what happens is the pollen is locked up inside a tube and it doesn’t come out unless the plant is vibrated at a certain frequency and so nature has designed bees, certain bees that can sonicate and what the bees do is they go and grab hold of the plant or the parts of the flower and vibrate their wing muscles without vibrating their wings and it shakes the plant at just the right frequency to shake the pollen loose and it’s called sonication. When they grow ... it’s quite interesting but when they grow tomatoes in polytunnels they don’t have bees and so they have to run around with sonicators to make some sound like they’re from Dr Who with the sonic screwdriver and it’s like an electric toothbrush and go and sonicate the flowers to rattle the pollen loose so that you can actually have tomatoes.
Anyway with blueberries they need sonication so they took this blueberry farm and let’s say it was 20ha of blueberries ... I don’t know the actual numbers ... and they took it and divided it up into fields and half the fields they left planted with blueberries and the other half of the fields they planted with wildflowers. Then after a year they noticed that they had recovered the cost of the wildflowers that they’d planted by increased yield in the blueberries that now only covered half the field and it worked out they could make more blueberries than they could in planting the whole lot with blueberries so half the actual land planted with blueberries but they’re actually making more blueberries than they were when they had the whole lot planted with blueberries because of all the native pollinators that were coming in and surviving because they had this ... these wildflowers to live on.
And the wildflowers became perpetual because they were being pollinated so they just kept you know reseeding themselves and regrowing and regrowing and that’s led to a few big programs happening in the US where they’re making these pollinator highways some of you might have heard of where they go and plant things like the rough in a golf course ... in fact a big chemical company, Syngenta, is finding some of these things where they go and plant the rough in golf courses with wildflowers ‘cause I mean it’s the rough, it doesn’t really matter and wildflowers are providing forage for pollinators and they’re planting the verges of highways where they used to be mowed all the time by the farmers, they’ve gone on hang on a minute, if we plant it with wildflowers or just let the wildflowers develop we don’t have to mow it all the time so all this energy they were spending mowing the verges, they can stop spending if they let it go back to the way it was. Yeah, surprise, surprise and it’s bringing in more pollinators which is actually increasing the yields of the farms, it’s really interesting stuff.
But it’s not rocket science and so these sort of pollinator highways are the sort of things that we need to be doing in urban areas as well because the bees get cut off you know if you think about any sort of development that happens, before the development happens there’s you know usually lots of things growing ... well even commercial land is like that, it’s got wildflowers and weeds and things growing on it which are all habitat then they come in and put a development there and replace all of that and they reforest it if you like with a bit of grass and leave a few gum trees in place but often there’s areas of concrete between one set of plantings and the next and what happens is the native pollinators aren’t great fliers, they usually only go maybe up to 800m and they can’t get from area to the next because they ’re stuck, there’s no way of getting there, there’s no food on the way so by coming in and planting some things that actually flower you can facilitate the bees moving from one area to the next and that’s what they’re talking about when they talk about pollinator highways. You know and it’s astounding in Europe, they actually have a website and see where you need to have more things growing. Everybody logs their gardens and you can see where you need plant more things that flower to fill in the gaps on the pollinator highway and so there’s these huge programs where everybody’s getting involved and growing a few flowering plants on their balconies to fill up those gaps on the highway which is the sort of thing I’d like to see happening in Australia, it’d be awesome if we get to that point.
You know and people are getting the message but wouldn't it be awesome if suddenly people thought gee, I’ll put something that flowers in. And people say to me oh but your bees you know you’ve got your bees in the city, are they making honey? I go yeah, they make heaps of honey. Well we don’t need to plant anything. Well my European honeybees are fine, they fly a long way, it’s all our native pollinators that we need to cater for and having you know native pollinators and other insects there bringing in all the bird life and everything else so my little postage stamp in Darlinghurst in inner Sydney right near the Coke sign in the middle of the thick of everything, I get a whole lot of native birds come in, I get dragonflies, I get all this stuff coming in that you wouldn’t expect to be there and a whole lot of native bees as well because there’s habitat there. My garden’s a mess, I get in trouble for it but there’s always something flowering. Apart from the cockatoos, I wish I could make the cockatoos go away because they ... I was sitting in the backyard enjoying the serenity and there was ... I was laughing because the cockatoos were eating my neighbour’s house and I was out ... I took a few photos ‘cause I thought that was quite funny and they came over and stole my lemons. And they grabbed the lemon and flew off. Like not just one but a whole lot of them grabbed the lemon and flew off, I couldn’t believe it, it was like they were poking fun at me. They’ve been back since and I go out and yell at them.
But you know so it’s not hard to plant a few things that makes a big difference and that’s what I want people to do, is think about that and think about what’s growing and plant a bit of stuff which will help a lot you know and if we get to the point where we’ve got pollinator highways everywhere then we’re going to do amazing things for our local bees. You know bees have just been on the endangered species for the first time, some of you might have seen that. A couple of ... I think they’re ... I can’t remember where they’re from in America, a particular area, only two bees but you know it’s scary to think that those native bees are possibly going to be lost. And in Australia we have lots of native bees that we don’t even know about yet ‘cause it’s such a big country ... that could be lost as well because we have ... not providing habitat for them you know or our farming practices aren’t providing habitat for them. We’re lucky in some ways, we run behind the rest of the world but you know one of the most intensive farming that exists is almond farming so ... there’s probably people in the room that like almond milk ‘cause it’s better for the environment than cows’ milk. I think a few people are a bit scared to put their hand up a little bit.
So each almond kernel uses about six gallons of water to grow which is an astounding amount of water and if you Google it you’ll see what I mean. And the reason that’s the case is they’re always ... almost always grown in arid environments and they’re grown as very, very intensive farming where everything is killed off apart from the almond trees so if you were to go to California and have a look you’d be astounded at the acre upon acre upon acre upon acre of almond plantings that exist. And ‘cause nothing else is growing there the only way they can actually pollinate them is to bring these in so they bring in very, very large numbers of beehives every year into the almonds in America which is how Varroa got spread around the whole of the US.
And those ... because there’s been a drought in California for the last few years the almond production’s been dropping off and so the people that are growing the almonds are now growing them in Australia down near the border of New South Wales and South Australia and they’re growing them with exactly the same methodology and the almond pollination event had just happened in Australia where a lot of beekeepers take all their bees down there and it’s known to be a possible vector for disease and unsurprisingly a whole lot of disease was discovered down there this year, they did ... ran a big operation testing all the beehives and found a whole lot of disease in the hives that were going in there which is really disappointing that there’s beekeepers that were doing that but it’s quite scary for Australian agriculture because those sorts of things are now starting to happen where companies are looking at Australia and going well let’s do what we do overseas an do it here. And if they continue to do that then they’re going to break a few things that perhaps don’t need breaking.
I always feel like I talk about bad news the whole time. What’s some good news? I’ll tell you more about bees ‘cause I love bees. So bees go about 8km so they fly a long way, about a 50km2 radius one beehive pollinates which is pretty amazing so my bees right in the middle of Sydney are going quite a long way. A single beehive make about 100 kilos of honey. Well mine do anyway, depends where you are. The most I’ve got 170 kilos out of one beehive just standing in one place, that’s not moving around ‘cause I don’t move my hives around. Yeah, there’s an interesting thing so bees are designed to have this thing called constancy and so what nature did is they went okay, we’ve got to have our flowers pollinated so it works if the same pollen get put onto the same plant, you can’t you know ... you can’t pollinate an avocado with lemon pollen. Maybe you can, lemonado or something, I don’t know but ... you can’t, right? So you need to have the same plant and so nature designed bees to have this thing called constancy so bees will go back to the same source of nectar or pollen until it’s exhausted, it’s the way they work. And that means that you get maximum pollination of whatever it is that they’re visiting.
And it’s had some interesting side effects so there’s a few cases. In New York, a place called Red Hook which is in Brooklyn they had a problem with red honey so all these beekeepers were getting red honey and didn’t taste like honey, it tasted like ... I was worried mine was going to do that and I put it on mute [? 39:02]. They were worried about this red honey that tasted metallic and they couldn’t work it out until the Maraschino Cherry Factory rang up the beekeepers’ association and said we’ve got this problem with bees coming in and stealing the maraschino cherry syrup. And so the bees had found the Maraschino Cherry Factory and it was like ... it was a source of nectar that never ran out so they kept going to the Maraschino Cherry Factory and stealing the syrup and making honey out of it you know and eventually they had to bee-proof the factory to prevent the problem from happening. And there’s been another case in France where the bees were making this amazing multi-coloured honey and it was like green and blue and brown and all these amazing ... yellow ... amazing colours. And it was M&M waste and the bees had found where they were throwing away the M&M waste and going and stealing it and making honey out of it which is pretty amazing.
And we see the same things happening to us in urban Sydney because you know any urban area where you grow bees you have pockets of things flowering and so when I pull a frame out of the beehive sometimes you have amazing rainbows of colours ‘cause there’s as many honeys as there are flowering plants. So you can get you know if you’ve got short flowering seasons on some of the plants you get very, very short bands and you get amazing ... amazing bands of colour. There’s a few photos of that stuff in that book, you’ll see these amazing bands of colour you know and they all taste a little bit different which is what makes beekeeping interesting and when I sell my honey like I do people say to me oh well I really like you know the spring honey from the CBD and the spring honey from the CBD’ll be completely different this year to what it was last year ‘cause different things are flowering. And we also get a honey that no one likes but we can’t work out where that comes from which is a bit of a problem ‘cause we’re getting more of it at the moment and it tastes ... I reckon it tastes like almonds ... I hate marzipan ... it tastes a bit like marzipan to me. Vicky reckons it just tastes horrible. And if you get a room of people and give them a taste about a third of the room likes it and the rest of the room doesn’t like it at all and we don’t know what it is ‘cause we haven’t got a big enough pollen database to work it out. But it’s just another feature of urban beekeeping where things are a little bit different all year ‘round. I’ve not sure how much longer I’ve got to yak on about bees.
[End of Recording]