Gavin Smith speaks of bees with paternal affection, equally awestruck by their ingenuity as he is intimately attuned to their customs. With a feather in his cap – literally – the dedicated apiarist admires the honeycomb of a discarded beehive frame.
“You see the beautiful work that they do,” Smith says, gesturing toward the complex structure. “They leave just enough room to move freely around the hive.”
A miniature amphitheatre has been set up in the garden of Sydney’s Asylum Seekers Centre, where some fifteen visitors keen to learn the essentials of urban beekeeping form a captive audience. All proceeds from course fees are invested into the centre – using a City Of Sydney grant, course tutors receive their own payment.
The morning-long course covers a range of topics – from the destruction of beehives by aggressive parasites to tactics for dealing with unexpected bee swarms – but it’s the revelation of beekeeping as a low-cost hobby that is most surprising.
As Smith explains, bees are free and it doesn’t take much to attract them – “just put a wooden box up a tree with some beeswax, lemongrass or lemon balm inside and they’ll come in no time.”
After that, it’s simply a matter of collecting the goods – smoking out a hive disrupts bees’ sensory abilities, leaving their fort vulnerable to sweet toothes – but remember on approach, as Smith advises bluntly: “One sting and you’re stupid. Ten stings and you’re dead.” Thanks for the heads-up, Gav.
There’s much talk of the Varroa destructor mite currently causing worldwide hive collapse. While Australia remains the last continent free from epidemic – Smith points out the parasite has already reached New Zealand and Papua New Guinea – the local industry is already strained. “We’ve reduced so much forest and natural habitat that native bees are quite endangered,” says Smith.
Smith describes their mating rituals in human courtship terms. “Males hang around until the queen is free – then it’s on for young and old!” It’s a catching fascination, but there’s a pace necessary for beekeeping: “Everything you do with bees has got to be slow and steady – you develop quite a sense of patience.”
Smith waves about the frame while talking, wafting a hangover of once fresh honey through the courtyard. “Look at that – they’ve already smelled it!” he exclaims, pausing to fix on the solitary bee buzzing slowly past.
To find out about upcoming courses at the Asylum Seekers Centre and other locations, check the Green Villages workshops page for updates.