Every spring old beekeeper Tony Wilsmore will be getting calls. Usually people see his phone number on the side of the cargo bike he rides around the Melbourne suburb of Moonee Ponds, where he tends to several backyards up north as part of his Suburban Bees business. When their garden begins to bloom and thoughts go outside, people want to show their interest in keeping beehives.
“The first thing I do,” Wilsmore says, “is try to convince them not to keep bees.”
Wilsmore grew up on farms and kept bees as a child. Five years ago, Wilsmore retired from a career in healthcare and community services to take up beekeeping full-time. He currently keeps about 22 of his own hives and tends to other hives around the Inner North. Since he returned to tending beehives, interest in backyard beekeeping has skyrocketed, with the official number of recreational beekeepers in Australia rising to over 28,000 nationally, up from 23,000 in five years.
This global phenomenon has been fueled by a combination of factors, including increased awareness of the dwindling number of honeybee colonies, a need to connect with nature inspired by Covid lockdowns, and the appeal of honey on demand through a hobby that may seem more accessible. with the advent of how-to videos on YouTube. As a result, new suburban bees have hives on rooftops, balconies and backyards in cities around the world.
But this explosion of well-meaning amateur beekeepers worries some experts.
A core part of Wilsmore’s business is promoting the importance of bees to the environment and increasing the number of people who keep bees, and yet, when the first call comes in, he says, “Look, I’m going to try to convince you to don’t have this one.
“After I’ve done my best and you still want to keep these animals – because they are – I’ll be happy to visit you and see with you where you live, who you have in your household, the opportunities you have to bee. and what the pros and cons are.”
Wilsmore is encouraged by what drives people to get into beekeeping, but he believes those good intentions must be matched with an awareness of the responsibilities of livestock rearing and the wider context in which their new hives operate.
Wilsmore is often the man calling on city councils to care for local swarms, a phenomenon that has increased over the years along with the rise of backyard beekeeping and is usually left to local councils to deal with. The risks surrounding possible diseases in hives that are not well controlled have also increased.
But the biggest risk to the bees themselves comes down to insufficient habitat. A combination of habitat destruction in both urban and regional areas, a trend towards smaller backyards and an increase in honeybee hives in urban areas is driving increased competition for rural resources for both honeybees and native bees.
“I think people are forced to keep a hive because they want to fundamentally help the bees. And my message is usually that the first step to helping bees is flowers,” said Fiona Chambers, CEO of the Wheen Bee Foundation, a nonprofit bee charity.
“Before people get a hive, they have to think very seriously: [are there] enough flowers, and not just in the spring, but are there enough flowers throughout the calendar year to support the bees?”
Founded by Gretchen Wheen, one of Australia’s best-known beekeepers, the foundation supports research and education initiatives that address national and global threats to bees, strengthen honey and native bees, improve pollination efficiency and increase food security.
Those issues inevitably lead the foundation to recognize the role of all other pollinators in our ecosystem, not least native bees (of which Australia has more than 2,000 species), but also beetles, wasps and moths. “It’s not just about bees. The big problem facing honeybees as well as native bees and other insects is the lack of flowers,” Chambers says.
A report by researchers at Curtin University released last year found that introduced honeybees were more effective and voracious at foraging than their native counterparts. The two-year study of bee populations in Perth found that competition between honeybees and indigenous peoples was particularly fierce in residential areas and that competition, in addition to habitat loss, risked some native bee species becoming endangered or extinct.
Just as introduced honeybees play a vital role in pollinating our food crops, native bees are essential when it comes to supporting native habitat, and some argue that they are an untapped resource for supporting Australian agriculture.
Pollination is a much bigger problem than honey, and more valuable.
“The total value of honey products in Australia is about $120 million a year,” Chambers says. “If you look at the estimated economic value of the pollination services provided by those honeybees” [managed and wild honeybee pollinators]it’s $14.2 billion a year.”
Cedar Anderson, the co-founder and inventor of the wildly popular Flow Hive, agrees. In one of the promotional videos for his product, he says, “Honey is almost the bonus.”
“We have developed food systems that depend on the honey bee. People have dragged them all over the world wherever they go. And we now know full well that without them we’re in trouble,” Anderson says. “But the other part of that story is that there are all kinds of other pollinators, too, [and] if you can’t keep honeybees alive, the environment and all the other insects will probably suffer too.”
In almost every recent news story about the backyard beekeeping phenomenon, you’ll find a mention of Flow Hive and their contribution to its huge popularity. It’s been seven years since Anderson and his father Stuart, who co-invented Flow Hive, watched their crowdfunding campaign become the most successful crowdfunding campaign ever outside the US. Within 15 minutes of going live, the campaign had secured $250,000 in pre-orders. The duo’s hive is rediscovering the way honey is extracted (it comes from the tap) after Anderson, a beekeeper since the age of six, was inspired to create a system that wouldn’t crush bees during the extraction process, and that more was time-saving and less messy.
Anderson and his father soon realized that their product’s appeal was far greater than they had imagined. “It became clear very quickly that it inspired a whole new crowd of beekeepers in the world.”
Some beekeepers have criticized Flow Hive for attracting novice beekeepers with what they believe to be the suggestion that backyard honey is as easy as turning on a tap. But others argue that the company has sparked a renewed interest in beekeeping, offering an opportunity to tap into the enthusiasm of a captive audience.
Anderson says he and his father decided they wanted to help educate their direct customer base. “We started creating content about keeping these bees pretty quickly,” he says. “It just became clear that education was key.” This was motivated by a sense of responsibility to the bees, “but also a responsibility to the customers that they are successful in their new business”.
Flow has since invested in a range of education and regeneration programs including an online beekeeping course and the Billions of Blossoms project launched earlier this year with the aim of creating billions of new flowers for pollinators through a mix of reforestation and habitat protection and funded in share through their beekeeping course.
Anderson says about half of their customers are new to beekeeping and are attracted to Flow because of the appeal of its honey delivery system, but also because they are interested in contributing to pollination efforts.
“The honeybees are a gateway to see the world in a more interconnected way, where not only honeybees, but also humans have a place in the natural systems,” explains Anderson.
“The feedback we’re getting from people new to beekeeping is that they tend to suddenly realize the interconnectedness of what’s happening in their local environment, as their hives bring in nectar from a 10 km radius. And all of a sudden they’re like, well, wait a minute. I have to put the insecticide away, get out of the habitat.”
Wilsmore agrees. Aside from urging budding beekeepers to join a club, “play with some bees,” and get a feel for them before donning the suit in their own backyard, he says the best “bee people” can do, planting is planting. “If you’re lucky, you’ll also attract some native bees. Yes. And that’s even better.”