Urban beekeeping thrives on Melbourne rooftops

MELBOURNE -- As part of a common vision for a more sustainable future, an urban beekeeping group is rolling out a plan to install bee hives in every Melbourne suburb, one rooftop at a time.
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor

MELBOURNE -- The practice of urban beekeeping is not a new concept; Paris, Berlin, London, Toronto, San Francisco and New York City are all part of a global movement to bring apiculture to the cities.

In Melbourne, the growing popularity of beekeeping has been predominantly driven by the founders of the Melbourne City Rooftop Honey group (MCRH), and their passion for protecting the honey bees, a species that play a vital role in our food production supply.

If the bees are in trouble, so are we

The MCRH's founders Vanessa Kwiatkowski and Mat Lumalasi are bringing bees back to the cities, one swarm at a time. The Melbourne apiarists claim, “if the bees are in trouble, we are in trouble as well.”

The couple know all too well the importance of European honey bees and their role in pollinating agricultural and horticultural crops, enabling the sustainability of our food supply chain.

Since the 2006-2007 Colony Collapse Disorder there’s been a growing concern about the survival of European honey bees. Dennis vanEngelsdorp provides an excellent TED talk on the role of bees and their demise in the United States.

The potentially devastating impact of exotic pests such as the Varroa mite, which is yet to reach Australia, poses a significant threat to the honey bees and their pollination services.

“Australia is the last country to not have been invaded by this disease -- if and when it arrives to our shores, it will be a stronger more evolved strain posing a significant threat to honey bees and our pollination services,” Kwiatkowski explains.

According to the MCRH, around 65 per cent of agricultural production in Australia depends on pollination by European honey bees, with some 35 industries depending on honey bee pollination for most of their production.

The Melbourne City Rooftop Honey project

Concerned by the growing disconnect between food production and consumption, Kwiatkowski and Lumalasi aim to raise public awareness of the importance of bees by helping the community create delicious honey.

Kwiatkowski believes that the city is a great place for bees: “A lot of people do not realize what the bees actually do or how far they will forage, and that you do not actually need a backyard to keep them.”

The couple are leading a project to “re-home” honey bee colonies from swarms either caught by themselves  or from volunteers of the Beekeepers Club Inc.

Each hive is checked approximately every 10 to 14 days by the MCRH, who take a cut of the honey in exchange for maintaining and monitoring the hives.

“Our concept is different to a lot of other urban beekeeping movements: We not only just share honey with our supporters, we share knowledge, connect people, and create a sense of community,” Kwiatkowski says.

The local community also benefit by some true ‘local’ produce -– a great tasting honey which is unique to each site, with less actual food miles.

“By placing hives on the roof spaces of cafes, restaurants, hotels and individual gardens in and around Melbourne, we have reduced the distance from production to plate to mere meters,” she says.

Kwiatkowski believes that urban beekeeping is particularly suited to Melbourne because of the variety of flora growing in the city, compared to the countryside, which often just has one crop dominating an entire area.

The couple’s plan is to have a hive in every suburb and create a network of people interacting and connecting with each other.

“Our vision for the future is to be able to provide the honey bees and their hives for free by raising funds and asking local businesses to sponsor a hive in order to keep maintaining and rolling out beehives all over Melbourne,” she says.

Since launching in November 2010, popularity for the MCRH project has grown rapidly; currently there are over 200 individuals and businesses on a waiting list wanting to get involved, either by adopting and/or sponsoring a hive.

But despite this success, Kwiatkowski explains that the business of beekeeping is not a lucrative one. “There is a joke among beekeepers; if someone tells you there is money in making honey, laugh and walk away. It is not very profitable, financially, but it is extremely rewarding to be a part of something so important.”

Community beekeeping

The MCRH currently looks after 40 hives (approximately 2.4 million bees) located across 18 suburbs in Melbourne. The hives are looked after by "hosts"; which include 18 local businesses and six residents who live within a 5-10 km radius of the city’s central business district.

Nic Poelaert, owner and chef of Embrasse Restaurant, has been hosting 10,000 bees on his restaurant’s rooftop for the past six months. The bees are set to produce around 15 kilos of honey per year, double the amount that was initially projected.

Poelaert, who uses a lot of the honey in his dishes, has grown a passion for beekeeping. “They are amazing creatures. When Mat and Vanessa come and collect the honey, there’s always a new story. It's always very interesting,” he says.

East Brunswick resident Louise Scanlon has hosted a colony of around 20,000 bees in her backyard for eight months. “It’s just an extension of our permaculture garden; everything is planned to coexist. The pond feeds the trees, the mulch feeds the trees, and we have drainage from the roof that goes straight onto the garden.”

For Scanlon, the benefits of keeping bees go beyond sharing honey with her neighbors: “Our bees now make sure that all our neighbors’ gardens (within a 2 km radius) are well pollinated."

Misunderstood bees

Kwiatkowski contends there are key challenges to urban beekeeping such as “teaching people that bees are reasonably gentle creatures and not the crazed stinging predators that some people think.”

She reassures us that a lump or swelling due to a bee sting does not equal an allergic reaction. "Everyone gets that reaction, if anyone finds themselves having difficulty breathing then they are allergic to bees."

Honey bees often get mistaken for the European wasp. "The two behave and want totally different things," she explains. "This is a big problem as the European wasp is very aggressive and gives our poor honey bee a bad name."

Regulations and compliance

In Melbourne, there are local council restrictions on beekeeping due to land size. If you are thinking of hosting a beehive, you should check local council regulations on keeping bees as they vary from shire to shire.

As a general rule, if you are keeping a beehive in Australia, you are required to be registered with the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), who conduct disease prevention and control programs for the benefit of beekeepers.

An additional requirement of the bee registration is compliance with the Livestock Disease Control Act 1994 and Regulations, and the Apiary Code of Practice May 2011.

Get involved

The MCRH suggests a few ways we can help to restore the bee population:

Photos: Lachie Mathison

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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