Save the queen, save the hive: how to live in harmony with bees

Beyond the towering city centres, Australia’s inner-city suburbs still harbour slivers of greenery. My Brisbane backyard is no exception. A magnificent poinciana tree stands in the corner. From my kitchen window I look out over its gnarly branches, protruding from a solid trunk.

Five years ago a swarm of European honeybees (Apis mellifera) made a hive in an enclave of the trunk. Worried about what they may “do” to the tree, I approached a Brisbane beekeeper, Jack Stone of Bee One Third. Stone started his business in 2012 to highlight the important role bees play in our food system. The name is to “remind people bees contribute to one third of our global food supply through pollination”. When asked if he’d come to extract my new neighbours, his advice was unexpected.

“European honeybees are one of the world’s most extraordinary pollinators,” he said. “They will pollinate any flowering plants or shrubs in your garden and neighbourhood up to 5km away. I recommend you try and live harmoniously with them and leave them there.”

He added it would be challenging to successfully extract them from inside a tree, without damaging them or the tree. I didn’t want that, so the bees stayed.

Swarming Sunday

Our harmonious relationship was interrupted one Sunday morning in mid-March. From my kitchen window I saw what looked like a mini tornado circling near a branch of the poinciana. Closer inspection revealed a buzzing, moving mass of bees, the size of a soccer ball, swinging precariously on the thin branch.

I was worried for their safety, and concerned about the possibility this moving swarm might find a cavity in my house.

I sent a picture of the displaced bees to my neighbourhood beekeeper, George Paterdis of BrissyBee, along with a brief explanation.

“These appear to be European honeybees, possibly a small cluster swarming from the main colony in your poinciana tree,” Paterdis told me. “The swarm can hang around, but they’re likely to buzz off in the next 24 hours. If they stay, we can relocate them.”

Paterdis arranged a visual inspection first thing in the morning. But these bees were on the move. Later that afternoon they’d relocated to a retaining wall within easier reach than the branch. I messaged him again.

Capture the queen
Late on Sunday afternoon Paterdis arrived, suited up, a veil covering his face. He explained that locating the queen bee was integral to saving the swam. She releases pheromones worker bees cannot resist, so they will follow her into a temporary hive.

“How can you find her in that swarming mass?” I asked.

I learned that the queen’s abdomen is longer and wider than her workers’, about the size of half a pinky finger. She often has few or no stripes, and she’s usually followed by attendant bees – courtiers, as any royal would expect!

Watching from a safe distance, I heard Paterdis call out: “I have the queen.”

A minute later he cursed: “Damn, I have lost the queen.”

By this time the sun had disappeared, and Paterdis was reluctantly using the torchlight from his phone to search through the seething mass. (Worker bees will fly to the light, mistaking it for the sun.)

Within a few minutes, he’d found her again.

Using gentle brushstrokes he swept the remainder of the bees into the re-locator box to be reunited with their monarch.

Later that evening I received a message: “Bees are home. The queen escaped from her cage before I left your place. She is staying put for the moment. Will let you know how they go. Only time will tell.”

By Wednesday Paterdis advised they were all doing fine. He’d boosted the hive with “brood” (nutrients) from another of his healthy hives. “My” queen was in safe hands.

After the swarm
Often the removing of a swarm generates an interest in bees. In the early days of his bee career, Jack Stone added his name to a “swarm collection list”. He still remembers his first call-out, to rescue a swarm of bees from a palm tree in a suburban backyard on Brisbane’s south side.

“To that rescue I brought written instructions on how to rescue bees, a cardboard box and a head veil,” he says. “The family who made the call were watching me. Thankfully, it was close to sunset when the bees are naturally calmer and I easily captured the queen and the worker bees diligently followed her.”

Victorian beekeeper John Winkels’ interest in bees began when he discovered a colony in a large cyprus tree on his property in the Mornington Peninsula.

“I tried to move this big feral hive out of the tree and failed,” Winkles says. But a tinder was lit. What began as a hobby with a couple of beehives turned into a full-time business, Pure Peninsula Honey.

Winkels quit his job as a butcher to pursue life as an apiarist and now has more than 2,000 beehives and 30 employees, doing everything from producing honey and making ice-cream, to raising queen bees and renting out hives.

“We move our hives on average once a month to assist farmers with pollination,” Winkels says. “Without pollination there won’t be any plant reproduction. Many of the fruits and vegetables we love to eat, like apples, rockmelons, oranges, almonds, zucchini, blueberries and strawberries, would not exist.”

The health of Australia’s horticultural and agricultural crops depends on the bees, and moving the bees to pollinate different crops keeps the insects healthy. Honeybee pollination is a win/win situation.

Living harmoniously with bees
Stone, Paterdis and Winkels are three of some 30,000 registered beekeepers in Australia.

Through their beekeeping efforts comes a greater awareness of the importance of bees and the vital role they play in placing food on our tables.

If you ever find a swarm in your garden as I did, there’s no need to panic. And certainly no need for bug spray.

Reach out to a friendly local beekeeper who will safely relocate the swarm for you. You will find a list of registered beekeepers in your area via the Bee Aware website.

Perhaps, once your swarm is contained, you can even keep them, by installing a beehive on your patch. You’ll be helping the environment and becoming a honey producer in the process. Your local beekeeper can show you how.