photos by Carlo Ledesma
When God was creating the world, he obviously forgot to send bees the memo about Sundays and that whole ‘day of rest’ thing. They may well have received the one from Buddha, though, the one regarding the rules of reincarnation and reaching Nirvana, such is their dedication to the honey-making cause and enabling the lives of humans everywhere.
At the home of long-time hobbyist Dr Jim Stokes in Umina, approx 40 km north of Sydney, despite the fact that the afternoon on one of the aforementioned rest days isn’t getting any younger, there are still scores of little sweetness creators at work in the front yard. They’re busily collecting nectar to take back to one of the many hives out the back to turn into honey. Luckily, Jim (a keeper for 40 years) has apicultural-ly tolerant neighbours. There are honeybees everywhere. European honeybees it would seem.
At over six-foot tall when standing, Jim is a pragmatic man. In his casual Sunday attire, and surrounded by the tools of his hobby-trade and a collection of self-maintained hives, he displays a calm indifference to the pain-inflicting abilities of these creatures. The kind of indifference that can only come from more than half a lifetime spent enduring, he reveals, at least one sting a day. As if to confirm his lack of concern, he works virtually unprotected. Adorning the full suit is apparently too time-consuming to bother with when performing simple tasks. Jim does own one; he just chooses not to use it.
He does, however (much to the relief of inquisitive visitors and, I am sure, his wife), utilise the calming effects of smoke before opening a hive. The smokes is provided by quaint little smoker. It consists of a tin, some hessian, a lid and a nozzle that is inserted into the top of a hive before fully lifting the lid for further exploration. Smoke equals fire to bees, informs Jim, so it does tick them off a little initially. Thankfully, once the smoke takes effect a few seconds later, it also makes them very docile - allowing for relative ease of further human probing and exploration.
It’s a little known fact that bees are responsible for one third of everything we humans eat. Put simply, we have bees to thank for one out of every three bites we take. It’s basic high school biology really; it all comes back the pollination process. Without bees to move the stamen to the stigma in the flowers of seeded plants - this takes place during a bee’s retreat from a flower, after it ventures into the centre in search of nectar - pollination on a large scale is not possible. Without pollination there can be no new seeds, and we all know what happens if no new seeds are created. While bees may not be the only pollinators in existence, they are responsible for pollinating a large percentage of the world’s plants.
Albert Einstein was once famously quoted as saying, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” The disconcerting reality is if things continue the way they are, the disappearance of bees is not such an unlikely event.
Heard of Varroa? It’s an unctuous little mite killing swarms of bees across the planet. Currently, a keeper's only means of controlling the Varroa mites is a complex series of chemical and non-chemical programs which, to date, have achieved varied degrees of success. Australia is currently the only continent not infected. One of the upsides of our infection-free status is that it has lead to a massive increase in the amount of Australian honeybees exported to North America and Europe, to replenish the dwindling number of honeybees abroad. Over the course of their last spring, Australia exported close to 50,000 bees to the US.
I mentioned the mite during a phone conversation with Jim earlier in the week and was suitably amused by his response. He seemed to take great pleasure in the announcing the fact that he could be of absolutely no assistance in any such enquiries. “We don’t have that problem here,” he boasted.
Then there is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The phenomenon involving entire swarms leaving a hive to pollinate and never returning. According to Jim, “Colony Collapse is a euphemism because we don’t know what it is.”
The New York Times recently reported that one Californian bee farmer, David Bradshaw, discovered more than half of his 100 million bees missing early last year. Alarmingly, his is not an isolated case; the US Department of Agriculture states that 22 states are currently suffering from disappearing bees. Put simply, CCD is like a magic trick gone horribly wrong, and no one knows which magician is responsible for the disappearing-bee act.
That’s the confusing thing about CCD; there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support any of the many cause-claims currently flying around the community. Some say it can be linked to the effect of genetically engineered crops on the bees. Others, that global warming is responsible for their rapid decline in numbers. Neither has been cause-and-effect linked to the problem. And still the bees are disappearing…
Not up in Jim's place in Umina, or in the rest of the greater NSW Central Coast region. Up that way, apart from the odd case of infection through AFB and EFB (brood diseases), the bees are thriving. At least they are for the hobbyists, fellow members of Jim's local association, the Central Coast Amateur Bee Keepers Association.
As the light begins to fade on his backyard set-up Jim reveals he’s not really interested in the professional side of keeping. He does associate with plenty of fellers who are. Nor is he interested in profiting from upwards of $110 that can be gained from exporting a three-pound package of bees, with queen, to the US. It would seem he’s more in it for the love of it, for these incredible insects.
Bee stings aside, you can’t really fault his love. If the visit to Umina, and time spent with Jim, confirmed anything, it’s that these little workers, with their butt barbs and brief life spans, are worthy of more human respect and adoration than that afforded by their bad reputation. If Einstein, and the rest of the faculty of modern science, is to be believed our survival depends on us changing our dreary attitude towards these notorious insects. If the continence of our species isn’t enough motivation, there is always the terrifying thought of a world without honey.