14 December 2018

Mooseheads, sex clouds and the lure of beekeeping

| Bryan Martin
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The lure of the honeybee draws tree-changers and life-changers. Photos: Lewis Martin.

Michael Devey is a quiet, soft-spoken guy, considered of thought and movement. It’s not entirely certain which came first, given his beekeeping profession. Did he achieve this aura of slightly bemused tranquillity once he started working with bees or was he that way inclined and found his profession by elimination?

Mike’s many colonies of bees out here at Murrumbateman are, like him, pretty calm, just going about their business, their lot in life, keeping the rest of us in food, candles and clothing. Clearly, we are learning all about our life choice to become active members of the beekeeping community.

For me, there’s another more pressing reason to learn about beekeeping. Sure I want to save the world, but….over many years of trying to raise animals on our farm, I’ve discovered in myself a serious failure to control the male of the species.

Yep, all that Alpha male stuff that keeps me out of bars and boardrooms, has emerged as a condition that makes every male come after my precarious top-dog position. Whether it be a bull, hog, ram or whatever you call that crazy male goat named Boomerang we had, and even, I believe, though my wife thinks I’m reaching, a hermit crab.

So I figure bees are a matriarchal society, out of my control, girl’s business. Males, the lumbering drones, have but one role to play. At the right time they find purpose, take flight and create, essentially, a sex cloud. Much like so many post-teens at Mooseheads, here they wait for a new queen’s virgin flight and a chance, one in a million, to mate and fall to earth, spent, and dead it turns out.

The weekend sessions have attracted many would-be beekeepers. The optimism in the room is as palpable as the heavy scent of wax, honey and the distant scent of flowers. Urbanites who dream of a colony that will harvest the nectar of their neighbourhood. Couples planning to escape the city, get a few acres conveniently close to schools and farmers markets where they can grow organic vegetables in hydroponic geodesic domes powered by solar, wind and their very own self-satisfaction.

Initiation into the mysteries of beekeeping is a life lesson about the mysteries of reproduction.

Everyone should know about bees, their community organisation is a wonder to behold. Firstly the cells themselves are the most efficient arrangement of space. Into these efficient hexagonal prisms, they place everything they need to thrive: honey, obviously; pollen, their protein source; propolis, a substance like wax that helps glue the comb together and is possibly the most amazing stuff you’ll ever get conned into buying on-line; and their offspring.

There’s only one queen bee one in each hive, and she is produced (this is amazing) when the colony think they need a new queen and don’t want to go through the usual HR issues of redistribution of employment. The nurse bees start producing a substance called royal jelly. Its single use is to change the genetics of a bee larva so it becomes a queen. Imagine the fun you could have with this at a Republican rally?

So the current queen takes off with half the colony. This is the swarming you’ll see in spring as the queen usurper rises, kills all the other potential queens and gets ready for her night at Moose’s.

Now we look out our window, down at the dam, and near a grove of cherry trees sits our new colony in their brand new Warre hive. A note on hives: the one Winnie the Pooh had such trouble with is banned in Australia, not sure why, maybe it is dangerous to all half-naked bears.

The Langstroth is the one you’ll see everywhere. It’s made for high honey production as it keeps the queen trapped in the brood box so all the hives above are full of honey plus the bees get this wax template to make their cells so they tend to make mostly worker bees rather than the useless males. The frames can be reused as the honey is spun out of it.

I met a guy named Tim Malfroy years ago who is the champion of natural hives, has awesome mutton-chops and makes the best natural honey around. He champions the Warre hive and its cousin, the Top Bar hive.

They mimic a natural hive where you enter into a more symbiotic relationship with the bee. Sure, you can take their excess honey but it’s more about doing good. The queen can go where she wants and they make the cells completely themselves. Honey productions is much less but is amazing, full of protein and propolis as it’s simply pressed and strained.

The new kid on the block is the Flow hive. I consider this a honey factory as the bees use plastic cells and you just turn on a tap to get honey. Each to his own but honey is something you should source locally.

Bindaree Bee Supplies operates out of the Win’s Creek Meadery in Murrumbateman, for any local knowledge, bee supplies, a beekeeping course or if you have a swarm that needs help finding a home. It’s also just a nice place to have a light lunch with a glass of mead in the courtyard amongst the heady aroma of honey, wax and jasmine.

Bryan Martin is the winery manager at Clonakilla and has been nominated as Winemaker of the Year for his own label, Ravensworth. He’s a food writer, cook and forager who believes Murrumbateman is the Tuscany of Australia.

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