ZEN AND THE ART OF BACK YARD BEEKEEPING
Thirty virgin queens and their escorts buzz quietly in Robert Beer's car while he attends a meeting of the Amateur Beekeepers' Society. The queen bees have just arrived by post from Queensland and appear content in the matchbox-size wooden cages, apparently untroubled by their journey through the postal system. Their final destination is Mount Compass, where they will re-queen Robert's hives, but in the meantime a honey tasting is in progress, accompanied by animated talk of nectar sources, honey flow and the current season, which is shaping up to be spectacular.
For more than forty years, members of the Amateur Beekeepers' Society have met once a month to pool knowledge and share their passion for the art of keeping bees. At the tasting they circle enthusiastically around sample jars, which range in colour from a delicate lemon-coloured mix of blue gum and pink gum to an almost black honey. As they discuss the finer points of honey granulation it's impossible not to notice that these beekeepers exude an enviable serenity. In conversation, they stress the importance of remaining calm, but is the composure - which they appear to possess in abundance - innate, or has it developed as a consequence of handling large numbers of bees without being badly stung? In short, is there a beekeeping temperament?
Society President, Robert Beer, believes there is.
"It's a steady nature, complimented by experience," he says. "Even when you're under attack by bees you've got to stay calm enough to realise what's going on, and if you handle bees in a quiet and methodical way, then they stay calm too.”
At 90, Peter Shorne is the society's oldest member. While he has no bees at the moment, Peter still attends meetings and doesn't rule out the possibility of keeping hives in the future. Dennis Straga has come to learn how to care for hives left to him by his late father. As a kid, Dennis tagged along when his dad visited the hives with the sole aim of getting hold of some wax-capped honeycomb to chew.
"It's unlike anything else in the world," he says. "You have to try some."
Ahmed Fayid, originally from Eritrea in East Africa, has been a member for around nine months.
"I kept bees in my own country," he says, adding that currently he has nowhere suitable to keep them, but that another member has offered to let him establish a few hives on his property. Ahmed smiles broadly. "Beekeepers are very kind people," he says.
Although the principles of extracting honey from hives have hardly changed since biblical times, each season is a lucky dip in terms of pollen sources and the weather. At the honey tasting, the member who has brought along the very dark honey endures jokes about having changed the oil in his car and muddled the jars, but after tasting the treacle-like mixture, members settle to serious analysis. It's only the second time since the hives were established that the honey has been dark: they discuss drought conditions and what plants around Willunga might have flowered for the first time in seven years. Bees are barometers of the environment, and beekeepers strive to work with nature rather than against it.
But, as with all agricultural endeavours, there are pests and diseases to consider, enemies of the European honeybee, such as American Foul Brood and the much dreaded varroa mite, the latter having devastated beekeeping almost everywhere, bar Australia. In New Zealand, varroa mite was first discovered by amateur beekeepers, and here in South Australia commercial apiarist Leigh Duffield insists that amateurs are a valuable resource for the state's honey industry, particularly in the early spotting of outbreaks of disease.
"Commercial beekeepers are pushed for time and money so they have to work hard and quick. But amateurs have enquiring minds, they love the insects and the craft and they're in a perfect position to observe changes in their hives and ask important questions."
In these days of minimalist gardens and diminishing back yards, a beekeeper in traditional veiled hat is a rare sight in the suburbs, but local councils maintain a list of individuals prepared to come out and collect stray swarms.
Libby Round gardens on an acre at Eden Hills and, along with a pair of traditional white bee boxes, a wild hive thrives in the trunk of a grey box tree. In her garden, pathways meander through herb and flower borders busy with bees; a spectacular Algerian oak casts a canopy of shade over the rear of Libby's house and when it is in flower, the whole tree hums.
"I just love the idea of bees out there pollinating the garden," Libby says. "It's a romantic notion. But beekeeping is hard work, too."
In summer, Sigi Friebe works on his hives wearing shorts and a T-shirt, insisting that sixty years experience is his best defence against being stung.
"There's no need to be afraid of bees," he says.
Sigi insists his bees always know if he's feeling unwell, and at 3.30 in the afternoon they tell him it's time to knock off by buzzing him back to the house.
Len Turner's Highbury garden is deliciously honey-scented, as is the room where he extracts the honey that won him Grand Champion at the 2006 Royal Adelaide Show. After many years of beekeeping, Len remains passionate on the subject.
"The main thrill for a beekeeper is to open the hive and see how the brood is going, to check on the queen. It's seeing a living thriving community in action. Without having that experience, it's difficult to realise the wonder of it all."
The society maintains its own working hives and hosts field days where beginners can gain first hand experience. They also run a library, produce a quarterly magazine, Buzzword , and offer classes in beekeeping practices. But perhaps the most attractive feature of all that the society offers is the opportunity to spend time with people who have, literally, taken time out to smell the flowers.