Robin Hooding in the Outback
Imagine my delight when a student from a local university, who at the moment just happens to be beekeeping in China, sends an e-mail just to say “Hi.” As I read her message I quickly segued from delight to jealousy! Here was a young woman, cavorting with beekeepers all over the world, and getting credit for it too. What a concept. When I asked if she cared to share some of her adventures, she sent the following installment about beekeeping in Australia’s Outback.
Let me know what you think,
I am a biology student in my 3rd year at the University of Puget Sound. Three months ago, I set out on a semester abroad, keen to study bees and beekeeping. In January, I found myself driving a forklift in Outback Australia, operating a 96-frame honey-extracting centrifuge with a crew of 3rd generation beekeepers. In New Zealand, I encountered alternative Varroa treatments that give new meaning to the words “fog machine.” Then I moved on to Thailand and met queenless colonies which were not so much beehives as honey factories. And now I am in China, substitute manager on a sustainable beekeeping project.
Here at HoneyBeeSuite, I hope to share a fragmented account of a few of my (mis)adventures. For further news and other stories, feel free to check out my blog at www.smallwrld.wordpress.com.
John says all beekeepers pinch fruit. It’s one of the rules of the game. He explains this as we tour around the Outback, visiting each of the crops that his bees pollinate and, mainly, pinching fruit. We harvest on the sly and then Robin Hood around town for a while, redistributing the watermelons that would have been mowed down otherwise.
We pass by cherries and pumpkins. John points out the lettuce plants whose seeds will be harvested with a vacuum, and we pick up a few oranges on our way to the almond orchard. Almond season is long past, but the miles of trees are still something to marvel at.
John’s wife and son serve as “pollination brokers” for this particular almond crop. Every year, they coordinate the delivery and placement of thousands of beehives. For a few weeks in January and February, they supervise the arrival of (literally) tons of semi-trucks. It’s their job to make sure the beekeepers have brought full boxes of healthy bees. To American standards, it’s a small operation, but this is my first commercial stint, so it seems immense to me. I’m eager to move some bees.
We have our chance a few days later when the watermelon grower calls. He wants a certain number of hives in a certain place at a certain time. I missed most of the details, because I was wrapped around one of those stolen oranges. I do remember that the proposed time was 9:00 pm the following evening because we left at 8:30 and returned home at 1:00 a.m.
. . . And so my first college all-nighter was spent shifting bees in the Australian Outback:
8:30 pm We take off in two semis, packing bee suits, bananas, and a forklift.
9:30 pm Junior mans the forklift while his dad uses a dolly to move free-standing hives onto unbalanced pallets. I’m smoking colonies before and after they’re loaded onto the truck. We quickly discover that my bee suit is too big at the ankles and wrists. It’s XXL, and I’m at least one “extra” small. The bees climb my face, attracted to the light of my headlamp. I turn off my headlamp.
11:30 pm We’re fixing gates to the back of the semi and strapping the hives in place.
1:00 am Home for a cuppa and a nap. We leave the bees on the truck out front and sleep until 3:40 am. These beekeepers don’t usually break mid-migration, but John wants to finish with the sunrise so that I can take pictures in the morning light.
4:00 am We’re back on the road, and this time John duct tapes my pants to my shoes at the ankles. Somehow the bees still find a way in. Unloading is comparatively quick. Junior and I smoke the bees while John runs the forklift.
7:00 am Foragers are flying in with feet-fulls of pale yellow pollen.
9:00 am We arrive back at home. John is off to bed right away, but Junior stays up and tells me about his job at a yoghurt factory over breakfast. (Junior was several things before he was a beekeeper.) Apparently, factory yoghurt is made of milk and chemicals, and you can change strawberry to pineapple like *that.*
10:00 am Bedtime. I slept for three and a half hours and was up in time for lunch and an episode of Doctor Who.
The commercial beekeepers in this part of the country must migrate. The Outback is too hot and dry to sustain bees in one place for very long, so these guys move their bees every few weeks. Following the eucalypt bloom requires a lot of planning, and my first few days in Australia are spent scouting bee sites with binoculars. These beekeepers have encyclopedic knowledge of eucalypts, some of which follow an 11-year flowering cycle. They explain, for example, that when the red gum bloom coincides with a full moon, the bees forage by moonlight and fill up their supers in a matter of hours.
Awareness of floral cycles is essential for managing a migratory operation. It is also important for pinching fruit.