On a breezy, astro turf-covered rooftop in the heart of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, a dreamy golden-hour light has begun to cloak the skyline. Urban beekeeper Jack Stone prepares to prise open an active hive and check on its thousands of tiny occupants. As a precaution, he first lights up a crumpled bunch of old newspaper stuffed into a bee smoker, a kettle-like metal pot that emits smoke around the hives in order to keep the bees calm. But at this time of the day, as the sinking sun casts a rose-coloured hue over the entire city, the bees are docile enough that we don’t need protective clothing.
A few of the insects buzz languidly around my head, attracted to the floral scent of shampoo, according to Stone. But for the most part, they are settling down for the evening after a long day spent foraging. A young, free-spirited entrepreneur, Stone co-founded urban beekeeping start up Bee One Third with a friend in 2012, with the aim of educating locals on the significance of bees to our ecosystem. The company has grown, and now has 120 thriving hives across Queensland’s rooftops and counts corporations such as the Hilton hotel chain among its many customers.
“Bees create a complex ecosystem, yet they’re such simple little creatures,” Stone says as he pulls out a frame crawling with countless Apis mellifera (otherwise known as European honeybees), each operating with singular purpose. Still the world’s most well-known and common bee, it was introduced to Australia from Europe in the early 19th century to produce honey for settlers. “They’re the most divine little insects that operate so simply to the naked human eye, but when they enter back into their colony, the amount of energy and detail that gets put into building it is just astonishing.”
British naturalist David Attenborough has long drawn the world’s attention to the plight of the humble honeybee, with beloved documentaries focusing on an insect that is often associated with its allergy-provoking sting. On the contrary, honeybees, bumblebees and other varieties of these buzzing beauties are vital to our food chain. While other animals such as wasps, bats and butterflies are natural pollinators too, it’s the honeybee that fertilises most of the world’s crops, making it a vital player in the agricultural economy. Worryingly, bee populations are in rapid decline across the world, due to a combination of climatic, environmental and human factors.
But in southeast Queensland’s gently rolling hinterland and fertile tropical fruit orchards – and even in the middle of urban Brisbane – a wave of beekeepers, startups and pioneering scientists is crusading to ensure that bees continue to thrive. They’re also harnessing Australia’s numerous native bee species to help solve some of the world’s other major environmental and health problems – including using bees’ nesting material to produce a revolutionary natural plastic and uncovering a new medicinal honey with natural healing properties.
Brisbane’s subtropical climate makes for warm temperatures throughout much of the year; an attractive prospect for both native and introduced honeybees, as well as for tourists. And with Australia boasting one of the healthiest bee populations in the world, there is perhaps no better place for these projects to be taking shape.
The next morning, I visit Sourced Grocer – a café in the central Brisbane suburb of Newstead, where I sample homemade rye crumpets served up with a side of whipped butter and deliciously sweet honeycomb that’s been delivered straight from nearby rooftop hives. Later, I drop by a sleek wine bar called Mr Chester in Fortitude Valley. Its menu includes a lavish charcuterie platter, with the star of the show being a pairing of Bee One Third honeycomb with rich blue cheese.
For many consumers, it is all about the flavours of the honey, which are, in fact, unique to each individual area where the bees forage. Stone compares it to the manner in which a single grape variety produces an array of wines that taste different depending on the soil in which the grapes are grown. “Each hive on this rooftop, although in the same area, will be completely different in the make-up of food internally,” he says, standing on the rooftop of a restaurant around the corner from Mr Chester. “And the honeys will differ from hive to hive, so we can harvest five different tasting honeys from this [single] rooftop.”
And because city inhabitants are selective about the kinds of flowers they plant in their backyards or on their balconies, the floral diversity of an urban centre is often richer than pockets of bush land where a single tree or flower can easily become dominant. “At this particular hive here, we could be looking at hundreds if not thousands of different varieties of plants that are in flower throughout the course of the past three seasons,” Stone says.
However, not all the action is taking place above the cityscape. Several days later, I drive for just over an hour through what feels like endless pine forest, passing the distinctive rugged peaks of the Glasshouse Mountains to reach the verdant hinterland behind the Sunshine Coast. At Hum Honey, in Peachester, Leisa Sams is raking in the accolades for her sustainably produced, organic honey. Her sprawling 120ha farm, set on a watercourse leading to the Stanley River, has a diverse natural landscape, ranging from timber hardwoods to riparian rainforest, that helps to create a distinctive honey flavour.
As well as being picked up by several renowned restaurants and retailers, her cold-pressed range of honey blended with innovative flavours such as chilli, rose and turmeric has won a number of national food awards – all of this just a little over a year after she transformed the side venture into a full-time family business. She is slowly returning part of the sprawling property to nature, re wilding land previously cleared for raising cattle by fencing off the watercourse to create a grassy wildlife corridor.
Sams, a second-generation beekeeper who previously worked as a veterinarian, says she has seen people’s interest both in beekeeping and locally sourced honey grow in recent years, an observation that is shared by others in the industry such as Stone. “I think it’s a return to my grandparents’ generation. They were a lot more connected to their farmers, rather than the mass retail chains we have now,” she says. “There’s a drive for local produce and to know where food is from.”
In September, Australia’s honey industry was rocked by allegations that some household-name brands, such as Capilano, were selling honey that had been mixed with synthetic syrups in China. Though Capilano denies any wrongdoing, supermarket retailers took several allegedly tainted lines off the shelves and the revelations have sparked a national conversation that Sams hopes will lead to tighter regulation of the industry. Small-scale producers have long struggled to compete against bigger companies that offer cheaper prices, but the scandal has driven many consumers to question the provenance of their honey. It’s precisely these kinds of concerns that have also helped drive an interest in Sams’ honey from overseas buyers in countries such as Singapore, China and the United Arab Emirates.
“The extent of the adulteration is a concern… it is a global issue,” she says. “It’s important that Australian honey is not tainted and that the generic brand of Australian honey, no matter who owns it, [is a product that] people around the globe can trust.”
In 2013, a widespread outbreak of the deformed wing virus and the parasitic Varroa destructor mite that transmits the virus was partly responsible for wiping out a third of Europe’s honeybees, with similarly devastating effects on honeybees in the United States. But according to Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, the country’s honeybee hives are still free of both. And there are no signs of the highly destructive colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that sees worker bees in a colony inexplicably die off in large numbers, leaving behind their queen. While the exact cause of this collapse has yet to be determined, scientists believe that climate change and fertiliser chemicals are two of the biggest culprits.
But with the varroa mite already having made its way to both New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, many believe it’s just a matter of time before the fast-spreading pest arrives in Australia. The Department of Agriculture believes it could wipe out up to 90% of the country’s honeybees, which would put food supply at risk and force farmers to turn to alternative pollination sources, ultimately sending food prices skyrocketing. Tim Heard, a former CSIRO scientist, says that despite Australia’s geographic isolation and concerted biosecurity efforts that have so far kept the mite at bay, “all the signs are that it will get here”. “There’s so much trade and so many ships coming from around the world, including from Asia, where there are the natural hosts of these pests,” he says.
What researchers and scientists can do to avoid a so-called bee-pocalypse, though, is turn their focus to Australia’s native bee populations. While the majority of the country’s estimated 2,000 native bee species do not store any honey in their tree nests, some species do keep honey in small, grape-like resin pots, such as the Austroplebeia australis stingless bee. It is only in warmer parts of the country such as Queensland, however, that these bees produce more honey than they need for their own survival. Special methods are presently being developed to harvest this special honey – it’s called “sugarbag” – without harming the bees.
Heard’s company, Sugarbag Bees, has more than 400 native stingless bee hives dotted around the forested pockets of southeast Queensland and teaches bee enthusiasts how to keep hives in their own backyards. He says native bee populations – crucial to the survival of Australia’s unique natural environment but not big pollinators of agricultural crops – would not be affected by the varroa mite, though some face less-documented threats such as habitat destruction due to deforestation. “Our native stingless bees are in very good shape because they thrive in human-disturbed habitats, but we don’t know about other [native] species because people don’t pay a lot of attention to them,” he reveals.
Locally based researcher Simon Williams is among those working to change perceptions of Australia’s native bees by proving that they can produce medicinal-grade honey similar to New Zealand’s famed manuka. The dark, jelly-like honey created by native bees has long been overlooked in favour of the warm, buttery product that can be found on supermarket shelves – Williams likens it to the difference between a Guinness and a pale ale. “No one used to buy it, so beekeepers couldn’t sell it,” he says. “Now, even without the medicinal side, people’s palates are becoming more expanded and they’re more interested in trying different flavours.”
With a suspected 61 out of Australia’s 84 species of Leptospermum trees capable of producing medicinal honey – in comparison to just one in New Zealand – Williams says there is a strong possibility it could take off for both medicinal and food purposes. “Manuka has one defined taste, whereas Australian honeys – because there are different species across the country – all have different flavours and notes,” he says. “From a table honey point of view, there is a lot of potential.”
The scientific promise of Australia’s native bees extends beyond their natural design. This year, New Zealand scientists from biotech start up Humble Bee used the nesting material of native banksia bees from Queensland to produce a water-repellent and flame-resistant form of natural plastic. The team travelled to the lush Noosa hinterland on the Sunshine Coast to collect dissections of the species via a local beekeeper. They’re now back in the lab studying the native species’ DNA and gene patterns, with aims to reverse engineer the bio plastic that lines the bees’ nests in order to create an industrial-scale biodegradable alternative. “We will do a similar thing to how insulin was made in the 1970s – the gene that coded insulin was put into an E coli [bacterium] and could then be produced en masse,” Humble Bee founder Veronica Harwood-Stevenson told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
But even for a scientist and beekeeper such as Heard, the allure of these tiny, industrious little critters is far simpler. “Most other insects can act as pests too , whereas there is really nothing negative about bees. Yes, they can sting, but they provide us with a vital pollination service. They also gift us such delicious honey of course – and, as Heard says, “Everyone loves honey.”
Photography by Lauren Bamford
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This article was originally published in the November 2018 issue of SilverKris magazine