Bees find defenders in the suburbs

Push to avert crisis for vital pollinators


Beekeeper and advocate Paul Wood. Picture: supplied

She rests on the timber fence post, pondering her next move. Young, and driven from her home by a dominant and aggressive mother, it was either take flight or die. Her priority now is to find a new home for herself and her children, somewhere safe to embrace the sweetness of a new life. Despite being surrounded by thousands of supporters, she wonders if she could be any more alone.

Then help arrives for this young bee in the form of Paul Wood, the man behind Brisbane Backyard Bees.

After turning his back on IT ten years ago, Paul has built a successful business that he is confident adds value to the backyards of Brisbane.

“I was more interested in growing food really, and I realised I probably needed to check out bees,“ he says. “I had been avoiding them since being stung in the eye as a school kid and I thought ‘okay, I better have a look at this’. I could no longer ignore the fact that I needed bees. So, I did a workshop on Top Bar beekeeping; I was captivated. Sticking my head in a beehive was one of the most fascinating things I have done in a long time.”

It is no surprise then that Paul has set his sights on restoring people’s relationship with bees. He is dedicated to supporting new beekeepers all over Brisbane with his Top Bar hives. “I now have probably 400 of my hives out in the Brisbane suburbs,” Paul says.  “More importantly that is 400 new beekeepers.”

Paul says his methods differ from many others, in that he doesn’t often use smoke.

“I teach people slow beekeeping,” he says. “The bee farming that we’ve adopted over the last 100 years is very much about banging and crashing and smoke and all this gung-ho macho stuff.” But Paul’s belief is that bees will be less likely to sting if they do not feel threatened. “Beekeeping can be a very intimate experience; it is very satisfying to get close to the bees and to really understand them.”

Bees in sticky situations

The bees however do not always go where nature intended, and Paul has had to rescue them from many a sticky situation. From outdoor furniture, beer barrels and boats, Paul has seen it all.  The most common rescues are from inside the walls and ceilings of suburban homes. “They will inspect anything that has a cavity with a small entrance; compost bins are common,” he says.

Rescuing bees is not for the faint hearted and Paul tries not to do more than one or two rescues a week. An average rescue takes roughly three hours, and the process is intense.

“You are cutting holes to the insides of people’s houses while trying to keep the customer’s house clean,” he says. “I have been on my knees for six hours, so it’s a tough job.”  Armed with a specialised vacuum and missing the normal protective attire associated with an apiarist, Paul carries out his work carefully, collecting the swarm of bees with his bare hands.  Despite the occasional sting, it is an intimate and satisfying experience as Paul gathers the bees to rehome them.

While it is important to recognise that we need honeybees for food, it is also relevant to consider what they are doing out in their natural habitat, and the Australian bush. “From what I understand, the European honeybees don’t really compete with native bees directly but because we don’t leave enough trees standing there is competition between bees and birds for habitat, so it’s a much wider problem. Bees in walls is just a symptom. The wider problem is that we humans kill everything including trees and insects.” Paul is also a passionate advocator for all insects. “Insects are pollinators too and they are essential to the food chain and our food systems,” he says.

Population on the decline

Gently does it … Paul Wood looks for the queen bee.

On average, bees pollinate 70 to 100 crop species that feed 90 per cent of the world.  It is alarming then to think of bee populations declining globally.  Save the Bees is a social enterprise dedicated to educating Australians about this issue and has set alarm bells ringing for the last seven years about declining bee populations.  While it is extremely difficult to pinpoint how many bees are left in the world, an article published by Deakin University acknowledges that it would be a struggle to sustain the global human population without them.  Habitat loss due to farming and urbanisation, along with disease, agriculture and climate change all factor in reduced bee populations.

Although Paul deals in the European Honeybee, he is also concerned about the 2000 species of native bees in Australia. “The European Honeybee is an invader like we are, however, they are a prolific pollinator. If it wasn’t for the European Honeybee we wouldn’t be eating. Having said that, the native bee species need our help just as much.”

There are eleven species of native bees that make honey, and unlike the European Honeybee, they do not sting. Their survival within Australia, however, has reached critical levels.

Helping hands

Paul is not alone in his defence of bees. As Conservation Partnerships Officer with the Sunshine Coast Council, Stephanie Reif raises general awareness with landowners who may have limited knowledge about bees and other insects. “Bees can pollinate anything but when it comes to insects, the intricacies of what they are capable of pollinating is huge,” she says. “There is little sense in saving a bee, then killing a bunch of insects when insects are just as important for pollination as well.” When it comes to the bush, the fight for home ownership between species is real. Stephanie reminds landowners that habitat for all native animals is important. “The Glossy Black Cockatoos for example are vulnerable. They need a bigger hollow so if a swarm decides to settle there, it displaces the cockatoo.” Managing and protecting habitats and ecosystems is a responsibility that needs to be shared by everyone.

So where can the European Honeybee settle if she finds herself an unwelcome guest in suburban homes or furniture? Paul has the answer. “I’ve always been interested in sustainability, the environment, caring for animals and everything naturally. The Top Bar hive is basically a tree.  It is a hollow log. It has no infrastructure, no wires, no frames, no plastic. It is just an empty box that allows us to manage bees as per the regulations by the Department of Agriculture whilst being as natural as possible for the bees.” Paul makes four Top Bar hives at a time with each hive taking him ten hours to complete. “I run workshops which are three hours on a Sunday morning, and I offer mentoring as part of my set up and delivery process for new beekeepers.”

With the global declining bee population affecting food production, people can become beekeepers and provide bees with a healthy habitat where they can pollinate and thrive. The best part of owning a hive has to be the honey. A Top Bar hive in a good season will produce 80 kilos of honey, but each season is different. “Top Bar honeycomb is built entirely by bees; it is fertile comb as bees intended and you just cut it off and run it through a simple strainer to get honey,” Paul says.

This natural treat is the sweet reward for providing a home and caring for the environment.