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Bees and the People’s Hive

By Jan Macilwain, organic smallholder, Sandy Creek

Yesterday, after the latest fall of rain in a sodden winter, a large dead stringybark crashed to the ground outside our garden fence. For many years it has housed a possum family and a busy hive of bees. We have been entertained by the generations of possums emerging from its hollows at dusk, and grateful for the pollination of a mixed orchard and productive garden by the bees. Benefits indeed.

By a strange coincidence, the day before, I had ordered a beehive.

Bees worldwide are threatened by the unsustainable activities of man, and their populations are at serious risk. Considering the importance of bees in global food production, not to mention in our own backyards, it seems to me the small scale bee-keeper can have a role to play.

Honey bees have been semi-domesticated for at least 5000 years, the Egyptians kept them in earthenware hives, but today much beekeeping has strayed from the natural and sustainable traditional methods.

It has become a large scale industry servicing large scale pollination needs, where bee colonies are subjected to a very unnatural exposure to chemicals, a lack of protection in extremes of weather and the harvesting of as much honey as possible.

Recently my interest in bees was renewed by an introduction to a different and more sustainable way of keeping bees particularly suited to someone like me. “The People’s Hive”, developed by a French priest Emile Warre in the late 19th century, was designed for simplicity of construction and above all, to be bee-friendly. It more truly replicates the natural tree space used by wild colonies and enables a more organic approach. With the bees free to build their comb naturally they can better control hive temperature and so stay stronger and healthier.

As a new backyard bee-keeper I have much to learn and much to look forward to. I hope to observe and take part in the unbelievably complex and sophisticated life of bees. I hope to harvest a modest amount of honey without compromising hive health or supplementing their over-wintering with “unnatural” sugar. I hope to pollinate my garden and those within the 10 kilometre radius which, it is said, a honey bee can fly in a day for its sustenance. Not least, I see being responsible for the life of a hive as an extension of my many responsibilities living on, and taking from, this planet.