Urban Beekeeping: A revolution?

Could urban beekeeping really help take the pressure off the damaged bee populations across the world and help safeguard a healthy supply for pollination? I’m not sure but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try.

Cities such as Los Angeles have begun to overturn centuries old bans on urban beekeeping, to join New York, San Francisco, London and Paris, amongst the many Australian cities who allow the practice. Even the White House has bees on its rooftop. This rise of urban beekeeping over the last couple of years has coincided with research on the dangers of pesticides, and the now global awareness of declining bee numbers. So what are the arguments for and against urban bees?

Principally the main reason some beekeepers are concerned over the sudden influx amateurs is that there is simply a limited number of flowers in the city environment. Worries over colony starvation due to a too high density of bees to flowers is a legitimate concern. This the reason why they are suggesting instead of installing your own hives, to rather plant some flowers in or around your house.

So if we work together to convert our cities into beautiful floral buffets for our bee friends, what are the benefits?

Besides having in situ pollinators for all the urban gardens out there, these bees produce honey and other products that can be sold right out of the establishments underneath them. With sufficient output, the urban hives could supply a portion of the honey needs of the city. With activists preaching about movements such as ‘farm-to-table’, what more ecologically friendly way would there to be than harvesting your own produce from your own rooftop.

What about being able to create a population safeguard for rural bees? Some sources say that urban bees could never hope to compete with the numbers necessary for agriculture, and that bees remain close by to the hive, not being very helpful. This is true, however when the hive reproduces and a second queen emerges, they could be taken back out to the rural areas to establish a new one. Of course there is not enough space, or food available for commercial quantities of bees needed, but having healthy hives to draw off of wouldn’t hurt.

I think cities need to think about ecological initiatives that will benefit the communities that live there, and utilising the free space on all of the rooftops of the city would be a good place to start.

So i’m not sure if urban beekeeping is quite a revolution just yet, but I don’t think that it will go away any time soon.



Getting medieval with Honey

We’ve mostly been looking at the real deal with regards to what bees can do, but today I’m gonna go back in time (20,000 odd years ago) to when honey was first transformed into something a little less sweet.

Mead is an ancient liquor that can be said to be the mother of all fermented beverages. It’s not coincidence that it’s called the nectar of the gods, so in running with the very much bee oriented theme, i’m going to be sampling some of New South Wale’s very own Bee Mead.

Mead is made by fermenting water, honey and a dab of yeast (with other ingredients occasionally mixed in) to create a clear, delicious liquor. The origins date back to the African continent, and it’s easy to see the appeal, alcoholic honey based drinks? Sign me up.

I kept the bottle, in anticipation of this blog

I kept the bottle, in anticipation of this blog

So Bee Mead. Back when I was merely thinking of stuff that I could talk about on a blog about bees, I came across Bee Mead. Walking down the aisles of Dan Murphy’s it stuck out with its large yellow bee logo, and unambiguous name, making the decision to grab it pretty straightforward. Full disclosure, its the first time i’ve tried mead, so Bee Mead might be a good example or not really representative, I wouldn’t know.

I really liked it, more like cider than beer, quite sweet and light. If you felt like a pretty refreshing lighter alternative to beer, with a higher percentage (a bit higher price tag as well), with the bonus of feeling like a viking while drinking it, I can recommend. Honey what can’t it do.

TG InnercityLogo

A visit to Petty Cash Cafe

The second chapter on my tour of the urban beekeeping scene in Sydney takes me to the Petty Cash Cafe.

Similar to the Cornersmith Cafe, they work with The Urban Beehive in their beekeeping efforts, and are also staffed with friendly people. A nice, retro inspired cafe that’s parked right alongside Enmore Park, had a really homey intimate vibe, reminding me of a really cool small town diner that had somehow been transported into the Inner-West. Again the honey was prominently displayed (as it should be) amongst the tasty looking homemade treats.

Sitting down outside the cafe, watching the customers come in, and have a friendly chat over their order, it made me feel like I was seeing a part of the Sydney community I had never seen before. It seemed that the places who were taking on these community works, like urban beehives, were genuinely an important part of the community, and it was nice that in my pursuit of honey it brought me there.

Try the Snickers frappé, it was pretty good.


Cornersmith in real time

So on my quest to visit as many cafes and bakeries that are part of the Sydney honey scene, I visited the Cornersmith Picklery, home of Cornersmith’s urban hives.

Honey in vials, for your sugar injection

Immediately greeted by three friendly faces, this quaint little store, that seems to double as a working kitchen, has a great homey vibe. They sell homemade preserves, condiments, pickles, and of course honey, with quite a large selection available. I can only attest to the honey, as being a relatively poor student, homemade, boutique, pickled vegetables don’t quite fit into my budget, but it is indeed fantastic. I’m not going to go into a whole ‘wine tasting-esque’ rant, but it is really tasty, and has quite a cool texture and flavour. Surprisingly different to store bought honey.

Raw honey from Sydney bees

Jars of pure, raw honey from the upstairs tenants

Just getting to chatting with a few of the helpful people there, it was clear that these guys are the real deal and were happy to answer any probing questions about the little bee operation that I had.

So if you feel even the slightest desire to get some nice pickled veg, or homemade condiments why not support a small Sydney business. They’re nice people.


The honey of Bourke Street Bakery

A major establishment on Sydney’s food and restaurant scene that I left off my list of Sweetest Spots around Sydney, is the renowned Bourke Street Bakery.

Probably needing little introduction for any hip food buffs out there, Bourke Street Bakery has been operating since 2004 and providing fresh, handmade, baked goods since its doors were open. It has grown to a Sydney institution with crowds of people squeezing into the small corner store in Surry Hills for some of its delicious wares.

Something I was unaware of however, was that they too were a part of the urban honey scene, with all of their honey used in their recipes coming from their very own hives up on their rooftop. So next time you are over there grabbing your morning croissant, take a moment to consider a sweeter option, knowing its made from the flowers of your very own backyards.


The Urban Beehive, and their bee-ification of Sydney

The Urban Beehive is a Sydney based initiative that places beehives on the rooftops of Sydney cafes and produces 100% city harvested honey. They are doing a great job working with the local Sydney community, and put together all sorts of courses, events, and products that work to expose and support the urban beekeeping mentality.

After visiting some of Sydney’s urban honey establishments (Petty Cash Cafe, and the Cornersmith Picklery) and talking to some of the lovely guys and gals who work there, it was clear how important the Urban Beehive is to knitting all of these places together and providing necessary expertise and guidance. They come around and install the hives, tap the honey and make sure the bees are all around happy to be there.

So hats off to the Urban Beehive, Doug Purdie and Vicky Brown, for all the great work they are doing to make Sydney a sweeter place.


Natural Pesticides for your home and garden

Pesticides are one of the leading concerns over the declining bee populations, and I feel that a good way to do your own little part would be to try out a few of these natural alternatives for protecting your precious plants.

First thing is you need to know your enemy. Most plants have specific pests which commonly plague them, and each pest has a specific strategy. We’ll start out with some general prevention tactics.

1. Pull out those weaker plants they are magnet for any predators, dispose of them well away from your healthy garden folk.

2. Make sure you have some good quality, uninfected soil. From personal experience, any soil you have still left in a bag on your balcony or outside, can quickly devolve into a writhing den of insects or worse. Make sure if you are planting new plants, that the soil is nice and rich, and pest free from the outset.

3. Keep a clean and tidy area, with nothing that might allow insects to hide out and make their homes in. This means if it’s a garden bed; clear out any dense leaf litter and large pieces of wood. In balcony or indoor pots, try to monitor if insects are in the soil. If there are any flying or crawling nearby it might mean you have an infestation and need to deal with it (lost my precious aloe vera plant to this).

4. Some seaweed based liquid fertilisers (i.e. seasol, lets not act like we’re above brand dropping) can double as repellants, while keeping those plants healthy enough to fend off attacks.

Now if the pest in question has swept up while you were unaware, and these preventative measure seem a bit ‘too little, too late’, you’re going to need to address  the problem directly.

One option is to encourage a counter-insect that will hunt down and eliminate the one ailing your crops, examples are as follows:

  • The common ladybug feasts on aphids, whitefly, and scale
  • Praying mantis enjoy an array of insect pests, and do it with dramatic flair

Others such as lacewing are also effective at naturally controlling harmful pests. However all of these counter-insects do require a degree of effort to introduce if they are not already present.

Now we get to the topical remedies, we’ll start with some homebrew efforts that are organic and can include stuff you already have at home, before concluding with some commercially available ones, that are also safe for your plants, yourself and your bee companions.

  • For soft bodied insects: a tablespoon of canola oil, a few drops of environmentally safe soap liquid (there are brands of eco soap available), and about a litre of water. Put into a spray bottle and shake well. This smothers the insects and works much the same as commercially available natural soap insecticides.
  • Mites: Couple of tablespoons of hot pepper sauce (eg. tobasco) or cayenne pepper, with a squirt of natural soap, and a litre of water. Let stand preferably overnight, and then apply to plants. Many insects dislike strong scents and flavours such as chili or garlic, and using these on your plants is a great, eco way to control pests.
  • Fungal diseases: A home remedy of two tablespoons of baking soda with a litre of water, applied every few days can clear up any issues.
  • Slugs: A fun one to try is to put out a little bowl of beer nearby. Slugs like beer (can you blame them), and will wallow in it until they drown. Other than that setting up a small fence of thin copper strips is known to deter them, or if available a sprinkling of diatomaceous earth will effectively deter slugs and snails.

That’s the home remedies but if you are looking for a purchasable choice, that won’t be bad for you or the garden, pyrethrum is naturally derived insecticide that you covers a broad range of pests, as well as pre-prepared products of natural soap sprays, chili/garlic based sprays, and organic pesticides like dipel are very effective.

These are just a few strategies for the organic gardener, and effectiveness of the home recipes can sometimes vary, but for your home plants, especially edibles, it is nice to know exactly what’s going onto them, and knowing it won’t kill you.

A lot of the information was sourced from eartheasy, more info here


Why Bees?

So, what’s my relationship with the humble (or bumble) bee?

As a kid growing up bees were not seen in the most positive light. When I used to live in Texas, there was a big wooden playground right outside our apartment. Anyway the thing used to be a magnet for wasps, and their associated nests. Luckily we don’t have such a big wasp problem here in Sydney, but in America they are pretty common, and pretty terrifying. Suffice to say, I did not develop a great friendship with any black and yellow flying insects with stingers.

This opinion sort of faded after I left the states, and bees just became one of those things that you had to contend with when rolling around in the clover on the school oval. All that was really told to us was that some people were allergic to bees and that if you were ever stung, to remove the stinger and go see the nurse. I feel like a lot of kids don’t really get the opportunity to appreciate what goes into growing and sustaining the food that they eat every day.

At my primary school we had a garden with chicken, and worms, and some veg growing, and I would love to see classrooms adopt more efforts to connect children to their natural environment. I remember vividly when a hive started in my bedroom wall at my childhood home. For around a month I had the comforting hum and thick smell of honey surround me as I slept on my top bunk. The wysteria outside my window would be filled with little buzzing bees nestling into the purple flowers. I remember seeing the occasional one floating around in circles in the pool, which I would promptly rescue and leave to dry in the sun. Then my mum went ahead and got a pest control guy to come and poison them, because it would be too expensive to try and remove the hive while saving the bees. I missed that honey smell, and I was resolved to look after any bee I came across in the future. I hope to live in a world where other kids can have fun experiences with bees like I did.

There are some great urban bee movements where they are putting hives into classrooms, to educate kids on how great bees are, and their importance. If we want to approach conservation seriously, I think we have to start young and foster a generation of environmentally conscious children, to which bees would form their own little nook.

So do your best to give a help to any bees you see, and maybe some day you can enjoy the companionship of a fuzzy friend as well.


What’s the deal with bees?

So, why bees? Why are they important, and why do I busy myself with trying to raise awareness to protect them?

Clever Jerry Seinfeld/Bee Movie reference

Clever Jerry Seinfeld/Bee Movie reference

Well, as some of you may be aware if you have seen any other article on ‘saving the bees’, they are fairly crucial in the role of pollination. Pollination is the exchanging of male sex cells (pollen) in a flowers anther with the female stigma. This is the ‘sexual’ reproduction that allow the plant to produce its fruit, which contain its seeds with which it can reproduce. This process is important not just so plants can get freaky with each other, but so that we can farm their fruit (harvest) in agriculture. Not many people may be aware, but roughly 50% of your local supermarkets produce section relies on bees and their pollination. Items such as citrus, avocados, eggplant, celery, green onions, and many more need pollination in order to be cultivated (see article on which produce would be missing here). Bees do this pollination as a byproduct of collecting pollen to produce their own delicious produce, and it is this relationship that has resulted in much of our modern idea of normal fruit and veg.

Whole Foods Market University Heights' produce department with and without items dependent on pollinator populations. (PRNewsFoto/Whole Foods Market)

Whole Foods Market University Heights’ produce department with and without items dependent on pollinator populations. (PRNewsFoto/Whole Foods Market)

Many people’s perceptions of bees are that they can be a bit of a dangerous pest, but they really are important. However, something you might not see on other pro-bee blogs, is that bees don’t effect any staple foodstuffs; this being corn, potato, rice, etc. Also that the role of pollination can be accomplished by human intervention. People can go around with a q-tip and rub pollen all up and down flowers, and achieve the required harvest. This practice has been been picked up by some Chinese apple farmers due to the decline of bees. This practice (hand-pollination) has been used for a long time when very select breeding wants to be achieved such as creating new varieties. So losing bees would mean that all the flowering agriculture across the world would need to be manually pollinated. Bees seem to be a more appealing solution, although it is interesting to look at the effects of what a bee-less society looks like already.

So save these little furry wingmen, and continue to enjoy a nice, luscious array of fruit and veg at your local market or greengrocer.


Some of the sweetest spots around Sydney

So looking at the Sydney bee scene there are a number of great cafes and restaurants practicing urban honey initiatives.

Billy Kwong – Potts Point

Located in the vibrant Potts Point, Kylie Kwong is the owner of celebrated restaurant Billy Kwong, offering delicious Chinese cuisine. An advocate of sustainable eating, Kylie Kwong is an ambassador to the Wayside Chapel, sourcing fresh produce and using the honey produced from their rooftop beehives in her recipes.

Cornersmith Cafe – Marrickville

Located in the heart of Marrickville in Sydney’s Inner West, the Cornersmith cafe provide a lively atmosphere in which to enjoy some great eco-friendly food. Working with The Urban Beehive, they have some rooftop beehives and offer producer’s nights educating on how to help the bees, and a chance to sample some of Sydney’s finest urban honey.

Petty Cash Cafe – Marrickville

Located a few minutes up the road from the Cornersmith, the Petty Cash Cafe provides an intimate and friendly local vibe, while supplying top quality homemade dishes and yes honey made from their very own bee hives.

The Wine Library – Woollahra

If you happen to be an avid wine lover, with an interest in sustainable urban beekeeping, then the Wine Library might be the place for you. Offering an impressive selection of wines, as well as their own rooftop hives.

This is just a taste of what Sydney local producers have to offer, but if it was enough to arouse deep seated beekeeping ambitions that have lain dormant, head on over and contact Doug Purdie, Sydney ‘Beevangelist’ at The Urban Beehive to get amongst a great community.