BEEKEEPING IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA

So, you’re interested in beekeeping?


There are a number of reasons why you may be exploring the idea of keeping bees. 

  • There is nothing quite like the experience of tasting honey from your own hives, exploring the terroir of the region. 

  • Gardeners can greatly benefit from the increase in pollination that honeybees can bring to their veggie patch or other crops

  • Or you may be interested in beekeeping because you’ve heard about how important bees are for the environment. 

Although bees are wild animals and in the wild look after themselves, when kept in urban areas they need to be managed by a knowledgeable beekeeper, practising responsible hive management and swarm control.

Beekeeping isn’t quite as simple as buying a ‘Flow hive,’ and turning on the tap to get honey. Bees are a livestock, and the keeping of bees in South Australia comes under the Livestock Act of SA.

A great starting point are the 2 following guides;

  • Recreational Beekeeping, A guide to beekeeping in South Australia, available as a free downloadable PDF by PIRSA.

  • The Australian Beekeeping guide, available as a free downloadable PDF by Agrifutures. Parts of the guide are geared towards commercial operations, but there is also excellent information for the beginner - including an excellent introduction to the honey bee, the hive and its components, beekeeper safety, spring, summer and winter management and operation and extracting honey etc.

We also have a number of excellent resources for beginners in our library. (A favourite is Robert Owens’, The Australian Beekeeping Manual.) Come along to a meeting to have a browse though our collection.


Beekeeping might not be right for you


Beekeeping might not be a great fit for you. You’ll need plenty of time. Sometimes you’ll need to attend to the bees on their schedule instead of yours. You will get stung. There is a lot to learn before you can start.


Biosecurity & Hive Registration


One of the responsibilities we have as beekeepers is to register our hives, and inspect them regularly, detect diseases and pests in the hive, report notifiable diseases. PIRSA have a page outlining the pests and diseases which hives in SA can be susceptible to.

The Agrifutures Biosecurity Manual for Beekeepers is an excellent free PDF which outlines how to identify and deal with exotic and established pests that affect honey bees.

The Australian Honey Bee Industry Biosecurity Code of Practice includes the following requirements for ALL beekeepers:

  • Beekeepers must be registered. Registration in SA is under the Livestock Act 1997 and is free for 4 or less hives. The PIRSA website has instructions for registration.

  • Beekeepers must report notifiable diseases.

  • Hives must be regularly inspected for pests and diseases.

  • Beekeepers must control or eradicate pests and diseases and must manage weak hives.

  • Beekeepers must maintain records of biosecurity-related actions and observations.

  • Hives (including swarm catch boxes) must be appropriately constructed and branded.

  • Beekeepers must not allow hives, or appliances to become exposed or neglected.

  • Beekeepers must allow their operation to be assessed.

  • Beekeepers must demonstrate a minimum level of knowledge of pest and disease identification and management.

Find out more in the PIRSA guide Recreational Beekeeping, A guide to beekeeping in South Australia and in the Australian Honey Bee Industry Biosecurity Code of Practice.

There are additional requirements for beekeepers with 20 hives or more and further for those with 50 hives or more.


Acquiring bees


New beekeepers who are setting up their first hive usually find that getting equipment is relatively straight-forward: There are numerous on-line and traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers that sell equipment. But once the equipment is organised, the next question raises itself: Where do I get the bees? 

After you have made sure you can comply with local regulations and registered your hive, make sure you have personal protective equipment (i.e. bee suit and gloves) and a smoker. Also make sure your hive is assembled, painted and marked with your Hive Identification Code (issued by PIRSA) before you get your bees.

Before getting your bees you will need to make sure you have picked out the location of your hive in your apiary. Once the bees are placed into position, the hive cannot be easily moved. Putting the hive under a tree that provides dappled shade is ideal. The hive should be elevated 30cm or more off the ground and away from ants. Choose your site carefully.

Here are your options for getting bees. 


OPTION 1 - INSTALL A SWARM

A swarm is a group of bees (usually collected by an experienced beekeeper) that has left their last hive to establish a new one. A swarm has a queen, but no eggs, no larvae and only the honey that the swarm carries in the bees’ stomachs. 

Starting a new hive with a swarm is often the cheapest way to acquire bees. Make contacts at the Beekeeping Society or through social media groups or by word of mouth to find someone who captures swarms and can provide a swarm to you. Some pest controllers will also provide swarms (although usually for a fee). Cold call, ask around and get on-line.

To house the swarm, you will need to have prepared your own brood box, lid, base and frames of foundation. A small swarm will require a small box that holds 5 frames but a large swarm can go straight into an 8 or 10 frame brood box. The bees will usually come in whatever container was used to catch them and that needs to be emptied into your prepared brood box. If you need to collect the swarm from the catcher then you will need to be able to seal the entrance to your brood box. A swarm of angry bees flying around inside your car is exciting but not recommended. A rag wedged tightly into the entrance usually suffices. However, make sure that there are ventilation holes in the base or lid.

Pros:

  • Cost. This is one of the cheapest forms of getting bees; sometimes it is even free and people may be happy to give away bees to a good home.

  • Environmental benefit. Swarming is natural bee behaviour and you provide a home for some bees that might have otherwise been a nuisance if they settled somewhere else.

Cons:

  • Availability. Swarms are only available during the swarming period which is mainly in early spring through to summer. Some years there are lots of swarms and other years there may be very few.

  • Establishment time. A swarm takes time to establish because the bees need to gather resources to lay down wax, raise young and build the bee population. This means that a swarm will take longer to produce harvestable honey than a mature hive would in the same circumstances.

  • Unknown genetics. The genetics of the swarm’s queen are unknown. Experienced beekeepers temperament test their wild caught swarms and manage accordingly. The BSSA has mentors available to assist you should you choose to work with a wild honeybee swarm.

  • Absconding. As a beekeeper you might be disappointed to invest time and effort into raising a swarm only to have a large part of “your” workforce suddenly depart just before next year’s honey production season. Very occasionally a swarm decides to leave the box you place them in despite all your tender loving care. Don’t take it personally… It’s not you, it’s them.

  • Injured queen. There is a risk that the queen is injured or killed during the swarm capture process. Without a queen the swarm will dissipate and die.

  • Disease. The swarm might be carrying diseases. Some diseases may not be evident until eggs and larvae form.

    If you are keen on catching your own swarm, my advice is to get some beekeeping experience first and maybe a mentor. Get used to handling bees and then have a go. 

OPTION 2 - BUY A NUC

A nuc (pronounced ‘nuke’) is a small hive that usually consists of 5 frames of bees (and a queen!) and includes eggs, larvae and small amounts of stored nectar and pollen. Nucs can be purchased from sellers who can be contacted by:

  • Contacts at the Beekeeping Society (Just ask around at the meetings)

  • Online shopping forums

  • Social media groups

  • Local apiarists (usually via websites)

In the interests of remaining vendor-neutral, I have not identified specific web-sites or social media. I recommend that you use the internet and social media search capabilities (Try: “Buy a nuc of bees”) to find relevant websites, social media groups and sellers. Make sure your bees are local: new beekeepers should not be in the bee import business.

Beekeepers make nucs by splitting existing hives or capturing swarms and raising them until they have established. This means that you can be reasonably confident that you have a viable queen that is laying eggs. The beekeeper can also replace the queen with a young fresh queen of good stock to reduce the risk of getting a hive with undesirable characteristics. Typically you bring your brood box, lid and base to the beekeeper. The nuc is installed in your box and then you return and take delivery after sunset a day or two later (when all the foragers are back in the hive). If you put the 5-frame nuc into a larger 8 or 10 frame box then you will need additional frames for transport so that the nuc frames do not rattle around. And you will need to be able block the entrance for transportation. And did I mention ventilation holes?

Pros:

  • More advanced. The hive is more advanced than a swarm and so will grow in size quicker than a swarm and produce harvestable honey sooner.

  • Lower risk of absconding. Bees are reluctant to abandon eggs and larvae so the risk of absconding is much lower.

  • Laying queen. You can be very confident that there is a laying queen.

  • Genetics. The nuc can be created from a hive with desirable characteristics or the queen can be sourced from good stock.

  • Less risk of disease. Reputable sellers should be inspecting the nuc and should avoid selling you bees where there is sign of disease.

 Cons:

  • Cost. Because the beekeeper has had to invest time and equipment, be prepared to pay money. I have paid between $120 and $150 for 5 frames nucs in 2018/2019. A new queen typically adds about $30 to the cost and if the seller provides a corflute transport box, this typically adds another $30.

  • Availability. Like swarms, nucs are usually only available in spring and summer. If the season is poor (limited nectar and few swarms) there may be few nucs for sale.

OPTION 3 - BUY A HIVE

A third option is to buy a mature brood box. Their main advantage is that their large established population means that they will produce harvestable honey sooner. But their main disadvantage is their cost – advertised prices can be several times the cost of a nuc. Often new beekeepers will learn more by watching a swarm or nuc grow into a hive. But if you want to buy a complete hive, go for it!


A Few Words to Finish

Please remember to be a responsible beekeeper. In Australia, you need to keep bio-security records that include recording the movements of bees. You must keep a record of the transportation from wherever you collected your bees back to your apiary.

You have a few on-going obligations: to provide a source of water for your bees and you need to inspect hives regularly for diseases and record the inspections. 

If you are keeping bees in an urban setting, it’s also a good idea to open a dialogue with neighbours before you get your bees so that they do not feel that you have imposed your beekeeping on them. (“I’m thinking of getting bees. Does anyone in your house suffer any medical condition that makes the presence of bees risky to their health?”). You can also reduce the risk of bees getting into your neighbour’s hair (literally) by positioning hives away from the property boundary so that the bees are flying well-above head height by the time that they leave your property. And offering your neighbours the occasional jar of free honey never hurts ...

Edited from Adrian Makarowsky’s ‘Got Bees?’ essay, Nov 2019 


Beekeepers’ Society of South Australia Inc.
P.O. Box 283, Fullarton SA 5063
office@bees.org.au
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