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The Urban Apiarist: Backyard beekeeping

© Craig Castree

Now that we have a backyard full of fruit trees and Vegetables it is time we discussed getting them pollinated and how best to do that. It is one thing to have fruit trees in your backyard but it’s another getting fruit on them. If you don’t do anything about attracting pollinators you are really leaving it up to a bit of luck, and if luck is not on your side then you are not going to get a lot of fruit. You need to attract pollinators before and after the trees blossom.

Image by Alex van Harmelen, 2015 

As a Bee Keeper myself I can tell you first hand having a hive in your backyard is an incredible thing to have and the difference it makes is huge. Bees are truly an amazing thing to have in your backyard whether you have a hive or not. It is extremely important to the success of your edible garden knowing what a vital job our pollinators have to do. Have you ever considered having your own bee hive in the backyard? The idea might not be appealing at first but once you get one, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Regardless of whether or not you have a bee hive in your backyard, it is very important that you always plant lots of flowering plants amongst your vegetables and fruit trees to attract bees and all of the other pollinators. Birds also do a fine job on pollination. It’s intriguing that, when planting vegetables, a lot of gardeners don’t plant flowers as they do all of the other important things like improving the soil with manures, composting, mulching, liquid fertilising and soil conditioning. They don’t attract pollinators, the very thing that is necessary for fruit production.

If you or members of your family are allergic to bees then obviously it would not be ideal to have a hive. There are local council rules regulations that you must abide by to have a hive as well, along with the code of ethics from the DPI (the Department of Environment and Primary Industries) which also suggests that you have two metre high fences so that the bees are forced to fly higher than humans as they leave the hive. There is an enormous difference in crop yield of up to three times of what you would have without a hive. Either way, you need to attract as many bees as you can.

Pollination is the movement of male pollen to the female part of the flower (stigma), the first step in successful seed and fruit production by the plant. Once the plant has been pollinated, the male contribution fuses with the egg in the ovary, the process known as fertilisation. After fertilisation, the fruit and seeds develop and mature. Although the male parts and female parts usually reside in a single flower, plants often have elaborate mechanisms to prevent self-fertilisation. In some species the stigma of the flower ripens first, before the anthers are shedding pollen. Thus, it can be fertilised only by pollen brought from an older flower. In other plants, the opposite is true. The pollen is mature and shed before the stigma ripens. Other plants, such as squashes or watermelons, have separate male and female flowers. A few plants, such as mulberry or olive, have separate male plants and female plants. Some plants, for example grasses, produce light pollen grains that may be carried by the wind or water from plant to plant. Other plants need help from insects, birds, or bats for successful pollination. Without this assistance, fruit and/or seeds would not be formed. In fact, about two thirds of the food Australians eat is the direct result of pollination by insects, and a very large part of that is the result of pollination carried out by the European Honey Bee.

Honey bees fly up to two kilometres from their hive to collect pollen and nectar, so as you can imagine if you have a hive at home they don’t have to work very hard at all to pollinate whatever is flowering at your place. The fantastic bonus is that you also get floral honey from them, which is often the sweetest honey of them all. There are a number of businesses out there who will host a hive at your place so if you are not interested in becoming an apiarist (a bee keeper) then this may be an option for you. Most of the companies will leave you a little honey for your trouble and of course you get great pollination.

As an apiarist and having a hive in my backyard it has made me very aware of how fragile they are and how heavily we rely upon them for much of the food we eat. It reminds me every day just how important not spraying and using chemicals around my backyard rather use companion planting and more natural sprays like chilli and garlic and the others we have discussed in the book. Australia is the only country that does not have the Verroa Mite. Attack by varroa mite weakens bees, shortens their lives, or causes death from virus infections that would otherwise cause little harm. In severely attacked colonies bees may have stunted wings, missing legs or other deformities. So whatever I can do to maintain a healthy hive I do and I tell as many people as I can to consider using alternate methods whilst gardening as our bees are in enough trouble without the chemicals.

Colony collapse disorder is also another problem that the world’s bees have to contend with it is still not entirely clear exactly what causes it but here is some of what we know. Bees collect pollen and nectar form flowers that occasionally get sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals which they take back to the hive to make honey with. They store it and, over the winter months when the ground freezes in Europe and parts of the world where foraging is too cold, the honey bee uncap’s what it has stored and eats it. With the honey it eats it gets what appear to be lethal doses from chemicals that they have mixed in with the honey during the process. So as you can see we need to change our ways and re-think what we are using on our food! I can assure that having bees in a back yard increases the food production off the charts and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

15 Facts You Should Know About Honey Bees:

Bees account for 87% of all pollination of our food. If the bee disappears from the Earth we only have four years left to live.

Australia is the only country left that does not have the Varroa mite that kills bees.

Household sprays contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder in bee hives.

Honey bees literally work themselves to death.

Queens are twice the size of all the other bees.

A queen bee can lay up to 2000 eggs a day.

The queen bee can live for up to three to five years.

Drones are male and do nothing but mate with the queen and cannot sting.

The worker bees are female and only live for six weeks.

The average worker bee produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

It takes nearly forty-eight bees their entire lifetime to make two tablespoons of honey.

There are sixteen kinds of honey bees.

A bee hive swarms every year in spring to found a new colony when a new queen is born.

Bees are deaf.

Highly recommended flowering, bee-attracting plants:


Lemon balm