More than ever, the world is waking up to the importance of bees in our ecology.
More and more folk are exploring beekeeping, whether it’s for the honey harvest, the extra pollination of our food thanks to those bees working busily on all things pollen, or purely for the fascination of these brilliant insects.
Perhaps you’ve thought about keeping your own hive.
If lack of space, lack of time, or concerns about being stung concern you, native stingless beekeeping might be the perfect solution to each of these little dilemmas.
Commonly known as ‘sugarbag bees’ or more technically known as Tetragonula, this social species of native stingless bee take up very little space, with a timber hive not much larger than a few shoe boxes stacked on top of each other.
They also require very little maintenance at all, and in fact are best left to do their own thing majority of the time.
You can harvest honey from these bees (though it’s a considerably smaller harvest than from honeybees), as well as split the hives to form two.
And of course, as the name not-so-subtly gives away – they don’t sting!
Making them perfect for those worried about keeping bees too close to your neighbour’s house, your own house or in a school or backyard with plenty of kid activity.
Michael Mobbs has kept sugarbag bees for the last four years in his urban backyard (famously known as the Sustainable House) in Chippendale, Sydney.
We grabbed him for a very quick five minute chat to suss out how he’s been enjoying their company…
What inspired you to get native stingless bees?
The discovery that the growing, production, transport and waste of my food – if I eat the typical Australian diet – requires 20 to 40 times more energy and water than does my ‘sustainable house’.
I wanted to grow more food and I needed the bees to increase productivity of fruit trees, both in my own garden and in Chippendale’s road gardens.
I think bees are like us, we’re all interconnected and my theory is that we’re going to have severe food shortages this side of 2020, like we’ve never seen before on the planet.
So the more food that’s available where we live and work the easier it will be for the coming difficult times.
What were your reasons for choosing this species?
I’m a coward and don’t want to be bitten, and don’t want my neighbours to be bitten and be cross with me!
They’re also less work – I don’t have to give them water, they get their own food, and they’re basically maintenance free.
What are some of the benefits you’ve found from keeping them?
Their simple, generous and beautiful way of going about their life sustains me, and quietens me inside. They’ve made me more aware of how small things are essential.
I’ve started to look more closely at fruit trees and I’ve started noticing the bees, it helps me see more clearly the things that I wasn’t taking notice of before.
And, as I’m lazy and don’t have to do anything for or with them – they suit me.
I can just leave them there and harvest the honey. They’re basically set and forget, and if I want to harvest honey or split the hives I can do that.
As it turns out, my preference is to split the hives to create more biodiversity and I’ve now got four hives in different suburbs in Sydney – they’re the gift that keeps on giving.
The only additional costs are creating the other hives, the physical housing made of timber. But basically they set it all up – bees are amazing.
How often do you harvest honey, and on average how much do you get in a harvest?
I’ve only harvested honey once because my main goal is to create hives and if I take the honey I can’t split them. I got about 500 grams.
How would you describe the taste of the honey, and how do you use it?
Ten times better than regular honey. It’s more sophisticated with a lighter palette and it’s not as heavy as the other honey. It’s 70 percent water (so a lot runnier).
I’m more careful with it because there’s less of it and the taste is more exquisite so I tend to buy a really, really good yoghurt, or make one, or buy some really good bread. It’s a special treat.
If you’d like to learn Stingless Beekeeping from the experts, we run Stingless Beekeeping courses each Spring with Professor Tim Heard, in Sydney.
Words by Emma Bowen – grower of good things including GreenUpTop + Slowpoke Journal