For this group of students, it has been a dream to keep bees.
They’re taking part in a beekeeping course run by one of Tasmania’s most experienced commercial beekeepers.
- Hobby beekeeping in Australia has become a valuable sector, worth $173.5 million per annum
- Interest in recreational beekeeping has steadily increased over recent years, including among women
- There are more than 28,000 registered amateur beekeepers across the country
Some, like Ellie Langdon, are keen to take it up as a hobby, others are looking for a new business.
“There’s a lot to it, more than I thought, but I’ve found it really interesting finding out the intricate details about their life and how they work,” Ms Langdon said.
“I’m glad I’ve done the course before leaping into my active hive.”
Beekeeping has surged in popularity in the past five years.
In that time, numbers of recreational beekeepers have tipped over 28,000 nationally, up from 23,000.
Trevor Weatherhead, chair of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, attributes the upsurge in recreational beekeeping to media highlighting concerns about declining bee populations and the popularity of the hobbyist’s Flow Hive.
Mr Weatherhead said COVID lockdowns had also prompted a spike in beekeeping.
“Ironically, I think COVID has played a little bit of a role in this. I’ve seen a few stories out there where people have got into bees in their backyard because of COVID they couldn’t go anywhere,” Mr Weatherhead said.
Bees mean big bucks
The backyard industry has become a valuable sector in Australia.
The AgriFutures Australia snapshot of the country’s honey bee industry likens recreational beekeeping to recreational fishing: comparable in size to the commercial arm of the industry and just as important economically.
The report authors estimate the economic value of recreational beekeeping at $173.5 million per year. In comparison, the commercial honey bee and pollination sector is worth $264 million.
Agrifutures, the government’s research and development arm, estimates that recreational beekeepers spend $72 million per year on bee equipment including hives, bee suits, smokers and beekeeping courses.
Southern Tasmanian commercial beekeeper Peter Norris has been in the business for years.
He has been running classes as well as selling bee equipment. He said the past couple of years had seen an increase in their popularity.
“People are becoming more aware of how important bees are,” Mr Norris said.
“It increases the appreciation of how much is involved and the necessity of bees and hopefully it will help educate people about being more careful with sprays and things like that.”
Mr Norris said he had run three courses so far this season, an indicator of the growing interest in the backyard hobby.
Women swarm to beekeeping
A growing number of women are among Australia’s surging beekeeping hobbyists.
Anita Long and Jenni MacLeod run beekeeping education programs and a group called Sister Hives.
“Sister Hives started as an idea around Anita’s kitchen table,” Ms MacLeod said.
“We talked about how great it would be to run a program specifically for women.”
A weekend pilot of the female-only program sold out in 48 hours.
“It demonstrated to us that there was a need for connection, community and skills-building; particularly among women who want to do beekeeping,” Ms MacLeod said.
Spring boarding off the success of the trial, the pair went on to secure funding from the Tasmanian government to run a 12-month program for aspiring women beekeepers.
“We were overwhelmed with inquiries,” Ms MacLeod said.
“We were funded initially for 25 places but we received over 120 inquiries from across the state.
“We ended up receiving 60 applications and we then went back to our funding body to make sure that everybody could be included in the program, because the key point about this program is connection, the skills.”
Keeping track of backyard beekeepers
Across Australia there are a multitude of classes for amateur beekeepers, a multitude of groups they can join, and plenty of equipment they can buy to support their hobby.
It is particularly important at a time when the industry is keen to protect our island nation’s bee population from some of the devastating diseases that have wreaked havoc overseas.
Industry bodies are encouraging hobby beekeepers to register with their state’s Primary Industries Department, but it is not yet compulsory everywhere.
Tasmania is the only state or territory that does not have mandatory hive registration, although there is hope to have it in place by April 2022.
Mr Weatherhead said it was vitally important for backyard beekeepers to register their hives.
“It’s important that you do register because it’s a biosecurity matter,” he said.
“If ever we did get an incursion of a pest that is not in Australia we need to know where those beehives are, then we can go out and check them.”
But without penalties it could be considered soft regulation and the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council admits it is almost impossible to enforce.
Keeping disease at bay
Taking a beekeeping course is the first step towards being able to recognise when a hive becomes unhealthy.
“We encourage beekeepers to join up with the local bee club so that way … they then realise what their responsibilities are,” Mr Weatherhead said.
“You’ve got to know how to look after your beehive. They’re not something you put there and leave and don’t look at. You need to look at bees to make sure they’re all right.
“You need to check on them at least every two weeks to ensure they’re getting enough food, they’ve got water supplies, the hive is not too crowded and there’s no disease.”