• Adrian Iodice shows Paul West inside a Kenyan Top Bar hive. (River Cottage Australia)Source: River Cottage Australia
These backyard beekeepers are showing there’s another way to handle bees – one that doesn't require protective suits.
Yasmin Newman

25 Aug 2017 - 12:23 PM  UPDATED 25 Jul 2019 - 3:02 PM

Much like the veggie patch out the back and chooks ranging freely in the garden, rooftop or backyard beekeeping is booming.

What a lot of people don’t know – even some beekeepers – is that most home beekeeping today is still based on a commercial model of apiculture, which some say is harmful to bees (or at the very least, not ideal). The alternative? Natural beekeeping.

The buzz

According to NSW's Adrian Iodice, a champion of the natural beekeeping movement, the recent surge in backyard beekeeping can be pinpointed to an exact moment: the 2015 release of the flow hive, an Australian invention that allows honey to be collected directly from the hive – literally on tap (in case you’re interested, it was one of the most successful crowdsourcing campaigns ever). Iodice says memberships at the ACT Beekeepers Association, for example, jumped from 180 to 400 in a single year.

The problem some beekeepers see with conventional apiculture, and even flow hives, is too much focus on maximum honey yields and enforcing unnatural behaviour. “The constant taking of honey means the bees think they are always under attack,” explains Adrian. It also channels all their attention to honey production instead of other important bee duties, such as cleaning hives, or simply taking it easy.

Conventional vs natural

Natural beekeeping, by contrast, embraces hives that mimic a hollow tree, where bees form homes in the wild. The two most popular styles are the Warré and Kenyan Top Bar. Here, bees are able to construct their own honeycomb and determine their cell size, colony size and selection of queens. Inspection of the hive is also kept to a minimum, and, thanks to the design, only disturbs a portion of the colony at a time. 

“We’ve grown so attuned to this image of beekeeping,” says Adrian of the conventional practice of wearing suits and using a smoke gun to subdue bees. When bees are treated calmly and respectfully, beekeepers rarely have a need for either.

Tim Malfroy, the godfather of natural beekeeping in Australia, acknowledges the irony of the moniker, as pointing out that keeping bees is not “natural: “Bees exist and thrive naturally, and have done for millions of years without the aid of a keeper,” he writes at Natural Beekeeping Australia, a fantastic resource on the subject that he manages. Still, this style of ‘api-centric’ apiculture is vastly more holistic as it subverts the traditional commercial mindset and focuses instead on the health and vitality of bees. And this is more important than ever.

The plight of bees

As you’ve probably heard, the world’s bee population is in free-fall. This is devastating news in and of itself, but it has further-reaching implications, given bees’ vital ecological role. By some accounts, we no longer have enough bees to pollinate our crops; in parts of China, workers are now pollinating by hand, while billions of honeybees in hives are shipped in to farms in the US to pollinate mono-culture crops such as almonds, and mass die off from stress, pesticides and diet is common. 

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Beekeeping is one way to help. The numbers contribute in a small way, but the awareness it brings is all-powerful. “Getting people interested in bees on a grass-roots levels gives bees a voice,” explains Adrian, who believes pressure from the public will influence the government to take broader action. Adrian’s goal is to get hives into every five backyards, and in council gardens and schools. “If we can get people to love and understand bees, then we can protect this creature.”

Quality over quantity

This is not to say you can’t want or won’t score a jar or liquid gold if you’re a natural beekeeper. In fact, while you might make a little less, it’ll possibly taste better and be better for you, too. Natural beekeeping encourages bees to forage on a diverse diet of different plants and pollens in your local area. It’s also creamier, even buttery, thanks to the extra pollen and natural honeycomb, says Iodice. Local pollens in honey may also help with allergies, particularly hay fever.

How to help

Adrian, Tim and others like them teach natural beekeeping courses to growing numbers around the country and are frequent guest speakers at local bee associations. However, if you’re not quite ready to dive into your own backyard beehive, here are some easy other ways to take part in the movement:

• Stop using pesticides in your gardens

• Plant bee and pollinator friendly gardens

• Provide habitat for native bees and pollinators

• Support local organic and biodynamic farmers

•Share the words with as many people as you can

Join Paul West as he discovers more about natural beekeeping on River Cottage Australia  6.30pm weeknights on SBS Food (Channel 33), then on SBS On Demand

Love the story? Follow the author here: Facebook @Yasmin Newman, Instagram @yasmin_newman

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