Article by Nick Kennedy

I feel like nobody who is really paying attention needs to be reminded of the importance of bees. But for those of you who managed to miss all the buzz, here is a quick reminder. Bees are important! Their ability to do their important job, that of pollinator for the majority of our daily fruit and veg consumption, is becoming more and more difficult for them and their handlers to deal with.

Pesticides, environment destruction, and diseases are just some of the most influential forces lowering bee populations around the world, most of all in Europe & the U.S.A.

Parisians recently held a funeral for bees, mourning their ‘death by pesticide’. A recent study found that bees living in the heart of London fared better than bees living in the English countryside; something that baffled researchers. Their conclusion being that the bees are better at utilising resources in urban areas than they are living in areas swamped with pesticides.

All of this is to say that the world of bees is currently pretty topsy-turvy. Of course, there are worldwide efforts to save our bee populations that have garnered support & awareness, which is fantastic, but more work is always needed.

Melbourne and it’s greater region have no shortage of passionate and talented beekeepers, having doubled in size over the last four years with over 7,000 in Victoria alone! Much of this is driven by recreational beekeeping, people that are tending simply one or two hives on their land. Each beekeeper counts towards protecting the Australian population of bees.

The Practical Beekeeper’s Benedict Hughes is one such beekeeper. Four years ago, when Benedict parted ways with a job in marketing, he found a path awaiting him in his love for gardening and biology.

“I come from a gardening background as a passion. I could grow things like broccoli and cauliflower okay, but I could never grow pumpkins and I couldn’t work out what it was!” says Benedict, “I realised there were no bees, so there was absolutely no pollination happening”. The seed of Benedicts career was planted.

“I was already interested in insects and bees, so I got my first hive as a simple hobby. Leaving my job was fortuitous because I realised I wasn’t made to be inside typing, I was made to be outside working and moving” he says.

The most important tool in a beekeepers repertoire? “Patience…and a sense of calm” says Benedict. Recalling his first visit to the beekeeper supply store, he had asked the owner if he would make a good beekeeper, to which she replied “yeah…you seem calm enough”. Benedict is so at home working with bees that he doesn’t even wear gloves, “you can be more gentle, you don’t hurt any bees…it becomes quite meditative as a process.”

The beekeeping community of Victoria, a lineage of generations passing down the art-form, accepted Benedict immediately.

Benedict points out their hunger for food knowledge creates an open community. “The great thing about [recreational beekeepers] is that they’re constantly seeking knowledge, there’s a real thirst for it. Not just in bees, but wanting to be more aware of their food and what they can do for the environment”

And bees certainly need that public awareness. The extremely destructive Varroa Mite was detected on a ship docked at the Port of Melbourne in June. This set Agriculture Victoria a challenge to establish a quarantine to avoid the spread of the pest, which is the most deadly to the western honey-bee. As part of the response team, Benedict was effectively deputised by the state government to help solve the problem.

It’s a circle of interdependence, we’re all part of a community, and we’re connected through pollinators
Benedict Hughes

Benedict says, “the agriculture department has a lot of good people working there, but they’re not beekeepers…they need beekeepers to do the work, as we understand the animal”

Roughly 180 beekeepers are trained for quarantine response, checking hives across the state for pest and disease – “it’s a massive concern for the industry” Benedict says.

In the face of environmental threats, it seems Victorian’s appreciation for where their food originates, and what goes into its production, is growing. “I think people are becoming more and more aware of the pollination value of beekeepers” says Benedict, “one out of every three bites of food relies on pollination! It’s a circle of interdependence, we’re all part of a community, and we’re connected through pollinators”.

So what should market-goers looks for to purchase great honey? “You want to buy direct from the beekeeper” says Benedict, “getting raw honey, which hasn’t been heated. Minimally filtered is also good. Heating and filtering changes the chemistry of the honey and ultimately the taste. So keeping it raw and unfiltered maintains those lovely enzymes and even a hint of pollen if you’re lucky!”

You can catch Benedict and the rest of The Practical Beekeeper crew at Alphington Farmers’ Market every Sunday!