“Do you still want that hive of stingless bees?”
Are there people out there who say no to the offer of a thousand tiny flying pets? Perhaps there are, but I’m not one of them.
So when my marvellous friend Laura decided to divide her hive of native bees – Tetragonula carbonaria, the variety of Australia’s 11 species of stingless bees most commonly kept in backyards – I was certainly not going to look a gift bee in the mouth. Even if I was able to inspect the teeny mouths of these diminutive 4mm long critters.
Laura was able to share the joy because about every 18 months a healthy hive of these highly social bees doubles in size and can be divided to create a new colony. There’s no worries about finding a queen for each of the two new hives. European honey bee queens sting their rivals to death, but in a charmingly democratic process, the queen for the new colony of native stingless bees is selected by the workers from the emerging virgin queenlets hanging around waiting for their moment. This thought pleases me almost as much as the factoid acquired from my new bible, Tim Heard’s (2016) The Australian Native Bee Book, that bees are kind of like wasps that evolved to become vegetarians. My new pets are a vego workers’ collective.
Splitting hives is how Kuring-gai Council’s WildThings bee programme (that, via Laura’s benificence, has made us beekeepers) has distributed 900 hives around NSW. And it’s how the number of meliponists – the appealingly pretentious name for keepers of stingless bees – tripled between 1998 and 2010. Carbonaria are opportunistic snackers and seem to like it in the suburbs, with their mishmash of local and introduced flowering plants.
There are around 1600 types of native bee in Australia. We’ve put up a lovely poster by Gina Cranson of some of the locals on our back door to try to improve our bee-spotting skills. But of the highly social Australian stingless bees T.Carbonaria is the one that copes best with a temperate climate, with a range that extends from the Daintree to the NSW South Coast.
Here in Sydney it’s getting on the chilly side for them, so we won’t be able to harvest sugarbag from our hive. Our bees will need the pots of honey they stash around the beautiful and distinctive spiral shaped brood comb, along with their surprisingly large reserve of pollen, to make it through the cooler months. Stingless bees produce a lot less than European bees anyway – a kilo or so a year, compared to up to up to 75 kilos – although sugarbag is apparently delicious.
We can’t steal sweet treats from them, but our tiny pets won’t be idle. Native bees don’t seem to be vulnerable to varroa virus, the nasty bug threatening bee health the world over that may spread to Australia any day now. So I can be sure that my mango, macadamia and avocado trees will have pollinators in the eventuality of a bee-pocolypse… assuming I don’t succeed in killing the trees (or the bees) first. Happily, however, given my patchy track record as a farmer, our new friends will happily roam up to 500 metres away, well beyond our wonky fence line in search of tucker.
You don’t have to walk bees, desex them, groom them, clip their nails or pick up their poo (although in winter the “house bees” can’t be bothered carrying the dunny can too far from the nest, so if you choose to keep stingless bees on your verandah and you are the sort of person who is troubled by piles of barely visible dung you might need to invest in a nano pooper scooper). But of course, despite that, I have managed to find something to worry about.
Stingless bees don’t like spells of frosty weather or very very hot days. If it’s over 42 degrees inside the hive the whole damn lot of them can die. So I was a bit antsy when Sydney had a couple of sizzlers in our first week as bee keepers. The spot we’ve picked out for them is shaded by vines and protected from the afternoon sun, as well as catching the morning rays in winter time. And our hive is wrapped in a polystyrene cover to insulate the colony against temperature extremes. Once we’ve had them for a year or two we might take Laura’s approach: “tough love”. But because we don’t really want to execute our bees (to be referred to collectively, the kids have decided, as Bob) before we even get to know them, this time we rigged up a bit of extra shelter and some evaporative airconditioning.
The only trouble with polystyrene is, as all chicken keepers know, it’s like crack to birds. They don’t have too many taste buds and for some reason they can’t get enough of that squeaky mouth feel. The gaggle of teenaged brush turkeys that loiter in our backyard hoping for leftovers from the chooks obviously decided that bees with a side-order of synthetic aromatic polymer would make a refreshing after-dinner snack.
Maybe I’ll come to regret the peace loving nature of the vegan commune in the backyard.