A German Learning Beekeeping In Australia

I’m Luisa, a 22 years old agriculture student from Germany. I live in a village near Weimar in the centre of Germany. My interest about bees comes from my father, he has always had a few beehives and already his father (my grandfather) had bees. The interest grew during my studies in horticulture and I had the wish to learn more about practical beekeeping.

A friend told me, that Australia makes the best honey and I wanted to see this and extend my knowledge about bees and so I hit the road ….32 hours travelling to get from Germany to Australia.

After first having trouble getting a response to my letter, a nice apiarist family agreed to receive me and demonstrate all about beekeeping in Australia.

The first weeks were fascinating and novel. I learned a great deal of things and gained insight into the work as a beekeeper. It made clear the first differences to Germany.

In Germany there are 95 % hobby-beekeepers with no more than 10 beehives. (We only have 200 occupational beekeepers and they have minimum 30 beehives). The honey production by German Beekeepers only supplies 25% of local demand. The remaining 75 % (circa 94,000 tonnes) arrives as imports to Germany and the most part comes from Argentina and Mexico. Because of the low prices from the countries of importation the existence for the German Beekeeper is difficult.  For over 20 years this problem has been discussed in our bee journals. The consumer must be persuaded of the better quality of the home honey for the realization of the higher price.

My father’s honey house in Ettersburg, Germany

My father’s honey house in Ettersburg, Germany

As a beekeeper you must know the most important bee forage, when they are flowering and how they benefit the bees. In Germany we have Canola as the most frequently branded honey, there is also Summer blossom honey, forest honey, Sunflower honey and heather (Calluna vulgaris) honey. In Australia the honey choice is a good deal bigger, ranging from the many different Eucalyptus brand honeys to fruit blossom honey, Canola honey up to Paterson’s Curse and these are only a part of the Australian honey diversity.

The differentiation of the many Eucalyptus species is not always a doddle, it must deserve closer attention. But I like the different look of the Eucalyptus trees. That the Trees don’t flower every year makes it not easy for the Australian beekeepers and so he spends a lot of time to look in the area for the trees and where he can place his beehives. But I think it’s nice: you see pretty places, the landscape is fair and beautiful and I ever discover something new.

The harvest time of honey in Germany begins with the ending of the flowering of canola in the end of May. Depending on the weather, the bee plant flowering and habit affect the second harvest of Summer blossom honey or regional forest honey. In Germany there is a pollination bonus as well, you get €45-90 ($86-170) per hive for three weeks, it’s according to circumstanceslike fruit brand, greenhouse or seed production.

From the end of July not many plants flower and the bees can’t find enough nectar, they must get ready for the wintertime. The harvest time is confined therefore from May to July and area conditional (heather) until the beginning of September. The annual return of honey of one beehive averages 20 – 50 kilogram. On the contrary a beekeeper in Australian is the whole year busy and he can reap honey…. That’s the reason that in Australia, every 12-18 months the bee queen must be exchanged for a new queen because she lays eggs the whole time. The German bee queens have a break in winter and so they stay 2-3 years.

The German beekeeper works commonly with Carnica bees (Apis mellifera carnica). They are dovelike (gentle), winter proof and possess a fast growth in spring time, but they have a higher swarming impulse than other races. The Buckfast bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) is becoming more popularin Germany. She is dovelike and winter proof as well, moreover assiduous, fertile and lazy in swarming. The dovelike and hardy features are of great importance in Germany. In Australiathe common bee races are Italian, Caucasian and Carnolian. These European bees are adapted (suit Australia’s climate)in the subtropical climates. The hardy is not a big issue and the dovelike has taken a back seat. Ability to work is looked for and the others…???

Historically in Germany we have a multitude of frame dimensions. But only few have a national acceptance. In the German-speaking area these are (dimension in cm) “Normal” (37*22.3), “Kuntzsch” (33*25), “Freudenstein” (33.8*20), “Zander” (42*22), “Gerstung” (41*26) und “Langstroth” (44.8*23.2). Many vow of her used frame dimension but the prevalent frames are “Normal”, “Zander” and “Langstroth”. Because of the many different dimensions it is not easy every time to cooperate with other beekeepers. Our used material is spruce and pine but also poplar and basswood. I have seen most Australian use Langstroth.

A considerable problem in the German beekeeping is the absence of young beekeepers. The average age is 60 years and the numbers of beekeepers is going down.

Another problem in Germany is the decreasing flower choice as well as the over-fertilization and the application of pesticides in farming. The flora that feed our bees is getting rare. Species-rich flower fields give way to ley (grassland), furthermore the nectar choice decreases on agricultural-used grassland. (the increasing fertilization and the sowing of dominant grass species have displaced the numbers of flowers in the meadow) Especially the absence of land weeds and the decline of specious boarder areas of the fields affects the bees. Spray chemicals put the beehives over the edge and sap their energy more.

Also the increasing cultivation of genetic-technically (GM) maize in Germany is causing the beekeepers a lot of trouble. Environmental groups and some beekeepers see a danger for the bees, fear for the natural product honey and for the economic existence of beekeeping. The consumers want GM-free food, and this is becoming difficult to make: because as a beekeeper it is not possible to keep the bees away from GM changed plants. Until now there are not enough studies, if the pollen of those plants is harmless for the bees and their honey. Hence, some beekeepers have combined and complain against the cultivation of MON 810. Or they have damaged GM crops and have been prosecuted by the authorities for doing so.

The most recent occurrence came about in May 2008, Chlothianidin coated on maize seed “Poncho Pro” to kill the European corn borer (Ostrinia nubilalis). The toxic etchant got loosened from the maize seed while sowing with a pneumatic seed drill in the end of April. It originated toxic clouds of dust which deposited on surrounding plants and fields. There it was taken up by bees and numerous other insects which subsequently perished. Affected bees died or came back strongly injured to the hives. 11,500 colonies of bees were poisoned with the pickled seeds. Some beekeepers lost almost their whole apiaries.

Also the Varroa acarid does not make it easy for the bees and the beekeeper…while the Asian bee is OK with the acarid, they leave their bee hive (abscond) if the parasites level gets too high, but the Varroa weakens the European bee and causes their death. Furthermore the Varroa has aroused suspicionthat it is one of the possible causes of the epidemic-like bees’ death that happen every few years. Important are infestation controls and the correct as well as the timely application of biological and chemical controls.

Australia can count itself very lucky in this thing. It is one of the few countries which is Varroa-free. For this reason (to keep it this way), it was extremely important that I didn’t come in contact with beehives at least one week before my departure to Australia.

The work with the bees is really great fun for me and I learn a lot about the contact with the bees. In my first experience with the search for the bee's queen, in zeal of observance I forgot sometimes the queen…I became so impressed with what was happening on a honey comb. Hatching, dancing and particularly very much busy bees can you observe. I can hardly await to have my own beehive, when I am home again. But first I enjoy the time in Australia to the full and collect many experiences. I am deeply grateful that I may be here and I love the Australian honey…

“If we support the Honey bee so we support ourselves!”

Author: Luisa Kühn