Written by Mary Rean
Photography by Joel McDowell
It’s estimated that 30 percent of the food we eat globally is pollinated by bees, and without their hard work, many of our plants would die off. So, bees are important.
Many of us are increasingly concerned about these environmental issues, so it’s not surprising to find that beekeeping is becoming an appealing home hobby, with hive numbers more than quadrupling in the last 10 years from around 250,000 to close to a million hives in New Zealand, says West Auckland beekeeper Peter Alexander of BeezThingz.
The great thing about keeping bees, says Alexander, is the effect it has on your garden. “Every person who has bees in their garden reports that their flowers flower better, they have more abundant fruit and vegetable crops, and their trees thrive.”
And, so long as you have flowering trees and plants in your garden, your bees should stay close to home. Bees are intelligent insects, says Alexander, and will forage as close as they can to their hives. “They will travel up to 3km if there is no food nearby, but to fly back that distance, they will have to consume about half of what they have collected.
“Another bonus of having bees is that people find eating honey made from their own local pollen can almost eliminate hay fever problems.”
A good place to start if you are interested is to read a beekeeping book and consider whether this hobby is right for you. Having decided you are keen, it’s a smart idea to find a beekeeping class, preferably one that has a practical aspect.
Auckland Beekeepers Club runs courses at Unitec in Mt Albert, with the next classes beginning in May, one over a weekend and two weeknights, the other a six-week night class. The classes teach the basics – how to start, set up a hive, what equipment you need, where to get it, and how to manage your hives.
Scientist and beekeeper Pablo German, Auckland Beekeepers Club and committee member, says joining a group is a good starting point. His club runs regular field days, where experienced beekeepers open the hives, demonstrate how to extract honey, and discuss different management styles. “It’s a good opportunity for people who don’t have bees yet to get hands-on experience, learn how to handle bees, meet beekeepers, ask questions and find mentors,” he says.
Going live with your hives
Getting set up for your first couple of hives can cost between $1000-$1500. If you decide to go it alone, buy your own hive and manage it yourself, you need to register with AFB.
You will need one or two hives, and the most common type is a Langstroth hive – made up of boxes stacked on top of each other. The bees build their comb and store their honey in the frames. The boxes are lifted off to access the bees, collect the honey and carry out any maintenance. You can add extra boxes to the top of the stack if the bees need more space.
Once you have gained some knowledge and got hold of hives, tools, protective clothing and feeding supplies, and you are ready to buy your bees, you should get in touch with a certified beekeeper to be sure your bees are disease free.
Beekeeping tasks are seasonal, and Alexander says over a year a hobby beekeeper might spend about an hour a week per hive looking after the bees, with less time in the winter and more in the other seasons.
Spring is the usual time to start a hive. You may need to feed your bees until there are plenty of nectar-producing flowers blooming around your place.
During summer the bees are busy foraging and making honey, and you’ll have to check on them every week, and make sure they have water sources near the hive. In summer you will probably spend a bit more time on your bees and you need to be prepared to lift boxes of up to 24-45kg to collect the honey and inspect the hives. Honey is harvested at the end of summer.
Autumn is a time for consolidating the hives. Most beekeepers like to leave enough honey in the hives for the bees to eat over winter, otherwise you will have to begin feeding them once plants stop flowering.
In winter, the bees hunker down and you don’t need to do much for them. You might like to check occasionally to ensure they have enough honey to eat, or they may need supplementary food if supplies run out.
If this all sounds a bit too much, but you still like the idea of having bees, there is a simpler way – beehive rental!
There are a number of businesses that offer their customers fully serviced beehives. These companies have beekeepers who assess your garden, decide where the hives should go, deliver and regularly service them, and best of all, they will supply you with pots of your own fresh, homemade honey.
Alexander says his beekeepers visit homes at least once a month throughout the year to check on the bees, maintain the hives, check for diseases, harvest the honey and respond to any problems.
Another popular option that BeezThings offers is beekeeper assistance packages for people who want to have hives but don’t feel confident to start immediately on their own.
“We rent the hives and you have a beekeeper for the first year or two. He or she visits every month at a convenient time, so you can join in and learn all about it. Once you feel confident you can take over our rented hives or buy your own,” says Alexander.Quite a lot of their customers choose this option, he says, and do end up going out on their own after a year or two. “The advantage is that if you decide it’s not for you, you’re not stuck with hives, bees and a whole lot of gear, which are all quite hard to sell at the moment.”
Bethells-based beekeepers Jessie Baker and her partner Luke Whitfield found their way into beekeeping through an enthusiastic flatmate, then travelled the world learning all about it. Now they rescue swarms that would otherwise be exterminated, bring them to their bee sanctuary at Bethells, where they have about 30 hives, check for diseases, and nurse them back to good health, before finding new homes.
Their business, Bees Up Top, has around 30 sites with hives on city rooftops and in people’s gardens around Auckland. “These urban hives produce a surprisingly large amount of honey,” Baker says.
“The bees we have in the city roof gardens often pull in more honey than the bees we have foraging in the bush at Bethells.""There are a lot of flowers in urban gardens, which make the city a perfect environment for bees. Between our city parks with all their flower gardens and apartment balconies, which often have flowers all year round, bees in the city are spoilt for choice.
“And,” she says, “rooftops are safe from vandals and get lots of sun, which bees thrive on.”
Bees Up Top rents its hives and provides a regular, monthly beekeeping service for its customers, “then we deliver lots of lovely honey at the end, which you can keep and eat, or give away as gifts.”
Baker agrees with Alexander that beekeeping isn’t for the fainthearted. “It’s a bit like having a pet – a lot of work. You have to go into the hive and know what you are looking for, and it can be heavy work. There’s a lot going on under that lid – the bees are busily making honey to keep them going over the winter.”
Serviced hives are easier to manage and often more successful, as without good care, your bees may die or swarm. “A lot of families like having hives in their backyards to teach their kids about bees, nature and the environment,” she says.
A little bit of history
While honeybees are not native to New Zealand, they have likely been living here for more than 150 years, since they were thought to have arrived in Hokianga in 1839, brought ashore by the sister of a Methodist missionary.
Native bees are pollinators rather than honey producers, and the species don’t really compete. The introduced honeybees multiplied quickly in the bush, and local Maori became the first beekeepers, gathering honey from the hives and selling it to settlers.
You must have a licence to keep beehives in a public place, but most councils don't need you to have one to keep bees on your property. However, you must follow minimum standards as a responsible hive owner. These include ensuring your bees’ flight paths aren’t directed across paths on private or public land. Bees often excrete within a 500m radius of the hive when they leave, so hives should be located so the bee excrement doesn’t drop on neighbours’ washing lines, vehicles and buildings. You also need a DECA (Disease Elimination Conformity Agreement) certificate if you are keeping your own bees, and not using the services of a professional beekeeper.