“They say if you want to know what’s going on in a hive, just watch it,” says Katie Livock, casting an eye towards a slot at the bottom of a hive where bees are beginning to cluster and hover.
They are young bees, she says, venturing outside of the hive for the first time, testing their wings before they get to work foraging for pollen.
Most bees do different jobs in the hive during their lives but every one of them has a role to play in the survival of the hive, their short lives dedicated to toil for the greater good.
“They can teach you so much about co-operation, leadership and fellowship and how to live a life,” Katie says.
The life of bees has fascinated Katie since she put her first hive in her Point Arkwright backyard about four years ago. The busy high school teacher now has three hives and is vice-president and publicity officer of Sunshine Coast Beekeepers, where membership is increasing thanks to a surge in interest in backyard hives.
Between 15 and 25 newcomers head to the Beekeepers’ headquarters at Yandina for a monthly introduction to beekeeping workshop. Some are aiming for their own honey supply but for others like Katie, keeping bees is a way to do something positive for the planet.
“One in three bites of food that we have wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for bee pollination,” Katie says. “It’s a big issue as far as food security goes for humans and for the environment.”
An article about the decline of the European honey bee and the associated risks for the planet prompted Katie to invest in her first hive and join Sunshine Coast Beekeepers.
“Before I had bees, I knew they were important for pollination, but I guess I was more afraid of them rather than in awe of the work they do, like I am now,” she says. “At the time I noticed that there was a lot of education around and a new type of hive: the flow hive. This made it seem like something I might actually be able to do.
“I researched and found a local beekeeping club and I joined it. I’ve been to every meeting since,” she says.
Katie says keeping bees is not difficult and it costs about $600 for a basic set up. “I think people think it’s going to be harder and more complicated than it really is. When you get started, and start learning, it’s not scary. It’s really rewarding.”
She spends about 90 minutes of her time once a month to check her three hives. If something is not quite right, she runs it past other members of the group.
“The best thing about our meetings is that someone asks a question, and says, ‘What can I do about that?’ We can have 12 beekeepers in a row and have 13 different opinions. None of them are wrong – you just have to work out which is right for what you’re doing. It’s really good to share knowledge.”
She enjoys being part of the beekeeping community and encouraging new beekeepers.
“I wanted to learn more, and you get more and more involved. I enjoy sharing information. Because I’m a teacher in real life, I like to see people learning,” she says. “We share ideas and problems and there is always someone who has experienced what you may be dealing with and there is no shortage of ideas being shared. We have beekeepers ranging from 15 years to amazing beekeepers in their eighties. We all talk, share, learn, and laugh together. Everyone has the same focus. We all want to help our bees.”
Joe Lynch, of Diddillibah, and his son, Oliver, 15, got their first hive this year and are making the most of the mentorship from other beekeepers. “I’ve always been aware of the environment,” Joe says. “I’ve always been an outdoors person. Bees have always been an interest.
“I think everyone in the back of their mind has a curiosity about the mysterious way beehives operate.”
Although it will be a year before he and “honey badger” Oliver taste any honey from their bees, they have found a sense of satisfaction in establishing a healthy hive.
“When you open up the hive, and you can see the wax seals starting to form – once the bees are happy with the quality of the honey, they cap the wax cell,” Joe says. “You can never find the Queen – it’s like trying to find Wally – but you can see the eggs and bees at different stages so you know she’s working. It’s all the different stages you are looking for to suggest it’s going well.”
Katie says everyone can do their bit for bees, even without a hive, by leaving out water during dry periods, growing flowering plants, reducing the use of chemical sprays, and by buying honey from local beekeepers.
Her honey has won prizes at the Sunshine Coast Agricultural Show, but she is more interested in what she can do for her bees than what they can do for her. “For me, it’s about giving them a healthy hive and helping them where I can,” she says.
Bees begin their first job at just a couple of days old when they become nurses, looking after the newly hatched larvae. After a couple of weeks, the nurses leave the hive and become worker bees, flying up to five kilometres and visiting up to 100 flowers a day in search of nectar.
By the time they are four or five weeks old, they are burnt out. Some do not even see out their 55 days because if they sting a potential threat, they die.
If you are lucky enough to hear the buzz of bees this spring, Katie says do not be alarmed, be glad – and not just because it means you are living in a healthy ecosystem.
“If a bee flies around you, it’s because they’re trying to work out if you’re a flower. I always say take it as a compliment!”
The introduction to beekeeping workshop at Sunshine Coast Beekeepers costs $120. ($70 for club members. Membership is $50, which covers a family.) To find out the date and time of the next workshop and to book, phone Chris Johnson on 0411 415 527, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to sunshinecoastbeekeepersinc.org.au