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Plan Bee: everything you need to know about urban beekeeping

Plan Bee: everything you need to know about urban beekeeping
Plan Bee: everything you need to know about urban beekeeping

As a wave of urban greenery and urban food systems starts to tumble over our cities, it is no wonder that people are increasing the instances of urban beekeeping.

Whether it be tucked away in a public reserve, down the side of a North Fitzroy garden or teetering above Lonsdale Street, urban beehives are popping up all over Melbourne, and following a national and international movement towards urban beekeeping.

The humble bee, an ally for our food systems and horticulture, is the great pollinator that we desperately need. Amidst horror headlines of declining bee rates, it's no wonder that our instinct is to adapt critters to our curated urban world – for our benefit and theirs.

Bees benefit from our agricultural, market gardens, and orchards, food systems both in the urban centre and outside, an encouragement of bee numbers is required to sustain these systems. With bees pollinating a least 65% of the fruit and veggies we eat, as Melbourne slowly grows into its own food bowl, urban food systems will become important, but we can't do it without the bees.

Sure, everyone loves honey, but many people flinch if a bee buzzes past on its merry way, or shriek at the thought of swarming mass of honey bees floating through a park.

The preconception that bees will ultimately cause nuisance is the enemy of urban beekeeping, but there are standards in place to reduce the occurrence and reap the benefits.

With Australia as one of the last safe havens for the humble honey bee, the encouragement of them into urban areas is truly a no brainer. The Varroa mite is a parasite that feeds on the larvae on bees and has been devastating bee colonies all over the world. Australia can be seen as the "last golden age of beekeeping" as it has not yet reached our shores. Many people in the industry talk about 'when' rather than 'if' in regards to a Varroa invasion, a solemn group of people preparing for the inevitable introduction of this monstrous devourer of our beloved bee colonies, both rural and urban.

Therefore, the encouragement of bees in urban areas to bolster numbers and educate people about their importance is imperative in our golden age. Amongst this are the trailblazers, pushing apiary into the mainstream when a few years ago, most people were replying "Api-what?"

Melbourne City Rooftop Honey are amongst the pioneers, encouraging bees back to the city and suburbs since 2010. The collective has 130 hives across Greater Melbourne and 30 in the central city, meaning there are tiny soldiers buzzing above our heads as you stroll down Lonsdale Street.

You can find hives above emporium, on top of famous Melbourne cafés and restaurants and stretched between suburbs and streets. You can sponsor hives, establish your own and purchase honey to taste the difference between a Northcote honey and Brunswick honey, a Little Bourke Street honey and a Lonsdale Street honey.

Plan Bee: everything you need to know about urban beekeeping
Melbourne City Rooftop honey hives in action above the busy city streets. Credit: The Urban List

Backyard Honey is also paving the way with an urban apiary service allowing city dwellers to establish bees in their own backyard. Providing both skills and equipment to prospective urban apiarists and a support network for backyard bee information. It is a non-daunting approach to establishing bees with a whole lot of help and guidance from these guys.

Honey Fingers is another bee driven collective, combining urban beekeeping with art and education. Honey Fingers run talks and introduction to beekeeping courses for when it all looks a bit intimidating. This is a valuable tool for encouraging more people to consider the establishment of hives in their own urban spaces. There are many companies paving the way and bringing the bees back to the city, encouraging the everyday person to consider establishing hives in their backyards or roofs for the benefit of our mutual future.

If you want to follow in the footsteps of the many urban beekeepers in Victoria, then your bible will be The Apiary Code of Practice, prepared by the Department of Planning and Community Development.

There are standards, as with anything, to harmonize the activity with its surrounding context. The Apiary Code of Practice stipulates requirements for beekeeping within Victoria. All beekeepers keeping one hive or more must register with the Department of Primary Industries, and maintain all hives in a healthy condition.

An apiary can be used on land without a planning permit if all requirements of the Apiary Code of Practice can be met.

The common type of apiculture in urban areas is permanent occupation, popular with hobbyist beekeepers where apiaries are kept in small quantities for the extraction of honey and beeswax.

Hives must be managed appropriately, and in doing so can reduce problems associated with keeping bees.

Swarming is the natural instinct of the bee, usually occurring in spring, and is a way of reproduction when the single colony splits into two and departs for a new nest.

Plan Bee: everything you need to know about urban beekeeping
Swarm in a tree. Credit: Peace Bee Farm

I remember walking to eat my lunch in the nearby park last spring to find it completely devoid of people. A couple of stragglers were hanging on the outskirts, milling about but I couldn't work out what was happening until I heard it, the low, deep buzz. A swarm had rested in a nearby tree and thousands were flying around the entirety of the park.

People were freaking out, but I was entranced. I sat and ate and watched as bees buzzed above my head in huge numbers. To me, it was a sight to behold – the exodus of so many bees, all collected in this tiny park wedged between a tram line and houses. It was cheering when the usual instances of bees in urban areas is a sad one nudging at your floral-printed bag or squirming in the dirt having been stepped on. Instead, there they were, present and resilient.  

Swarming is an instinct, and a feat to admire, but when the swarm attaches to your car door, or your letterbox or child's cubby house, you can see why people are fearful.

The use of artificial swarming can help to prevent swarms, by splitting up the hives yourself and reuniting them at a later time, simulating the act while removing the bee's impulse to do it.

Similarly, the expectation of the angry hordes of bees is managed by the utilisation of young queens of docile bee strains in urban areas and the use of smoke to aid in subduing bees while conducting maintenance on hives.

For the most part, bees are misunderstood and are generally not aggressive in the way that wasps can be. A considerable part of many urban beekeeping initiatives is teaching people to respect and even admire bees and understand them to take away the often misplaced fear.

As mentioned above, no planning permit is required, but all beekeepers must abide by the statutory requirements as detailed in the Apiary Code of Practice.

  • Hives density is enforced to reduce interactions between bees and people who live in urban areas.
  • The 500m2 or less block are only allowed to have 1, with 500-1000 allowed to have 2 etc.
  • Hives can be kept 3 metres from a boundary fence unless there is more than 2m, or impenetrable vegetation, and there are no windows to an adjoining boundary.

There are only a few statutory requirements for beekeeping, the rest is good management of hives, which is stipulated in the Apiary Code of Practice and is taught through beekeeping clubs, books and associations.

It is hard work, and even though nearly everyone can own a beehive, the reality is that it is a big responsibility and cannot be left unmaintained. However, as with most endeavours, good things take work. To benefit our food systems and to bolster the bee population in Australia, urban beekeeping is vital.

Urban beekeeping and education are so tightly entwined in order to reduce stigma and to harmonise bees in urban areas. So consider not calling the council if your neighbour has a beehive, because if you are grateful for the apple in your hand or the lavender growing on your windowsill and you might have some urban bees nearby to thank for that.

Lead image: Peter Dyer, found of Backyard Honey tending to urban bees. Credit: Domain

Julia Frecker

Julia Frecker

Julia Frecker is a guest content contributor at Urban.com.au. She is working in the planning sector and enjoys writing about planning, sustainability and environment as a way of combining her passion for the industry and a love of writing. She has a particular interest in urban greenery and food systems and the role it plays in cities around the world.

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bee keeping Environment

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