Keeping bees in the tropics - Bees in Humpty Doo, NT

My wife and I recently enjoyed our first visit to Darwin, as part of a trip on the Ghan from Darwin to Adelaide. About a month before we left, Tas Festing, a Northern Territory beekeeper, rang to renew his ABK subscription. I asked him how far Humpty Doo was from Darwin, and promptly received an invitation from Tas to visit him at Humpty Doo. Furthermore, he would also pick us up from our hotel and give us a Cooke’s tour of the Humpty Doo area. Too good an opportunity to pass up!!

True to his word, on reaching Darwin and contacting Tas, he arranged to pick us up the following afternoon. I should mention at this stage that December is NOT a good month to be a tourist in Darwin, especially when your home base is south of Canberra and 1000 feet higher than Canberra in altitude - we were really suffering from the combination of 35°Cheat and 80% + humidity. So it was with some relief that we climbed into an air-conditioned car for a very pleasant afternoon discussing the keeping of bees in a tropical climate like that of Darwin.

Tas has some 270 hives, working full-time and working bees part-time. He admitted he would like to run more hives, but the heat in Darwin makes it difficult to work more than about 70 hives a day. Enroute to a load of bees near a mangrove area, he pointed out much of the local flora and talked about some of the issues he faces.

Most of his honey is produced during the dry season, from Mangroves, Stringybarks, Wooleybutt (E. miniata), Northern Grey box (E. tectifica) and a small plant called Borreriaexserta. Once the dry season gives way to the wet, it becomes very difficult to keep bees alive - they can consume their stored honey very quickly. In fact, the easiest part of beekeeping in the Tropics is losing all your bees to starvation during the wet.

The second big problem is toads. Tas told us it was common to find up to 20 toads under each hive at night; when we reached the first load of bees, this explained the quite high stands for the hives - the toads cannot form a ‘pyramid’ high enough to feed on the bees, plus it gives a cooling airspace under the hives. Rainbow Bee-Eaters are also a big problem and Tas told of having seen as many as six birds at a time sitting atop beehives gorging themselves on his bees.

Beehives on stands at Humpty Doo

Beehives on stands at Humpty Doo

The only goodtoad is a dead toad

The only goodtoad is a dead toad

Looking in the hives, it was easily seen that some were already eating into their stores and going backwards, while others had a lot of bees upstairs but were holding some stores.

Hives holding their own in spite of the heat

Hives holding their own in spite of the heat

One not doing as well

One not doing as well

After looking at these hives we continued on to Tas’ home to look at his honey shed. Here we saw more evidence of the problems caused by the heat. Tas’ extracting shed had big doors, to enable airflow while he extracts at night. It is often too hot to extract during the daytime, and night extracting also helps to reduce the problems caused by robbing bees arriving enmasse. Tas uses a 72 frame horizontal extractor, made by Darren Genrich of Maryborough QLD, on a slide feed system from a BeeQuip chain-feed uncapper. Underneath the uncapper is a JB’s reducer, and a long honey sump with a mono honey pump. The wax is processed in electric wax melters in the open; again, too hot to do as an 'inside' job.

From looking at the shed we progressed to a walk through the bush to the back of the house, to check some more hives. One of these was a late swarm, which nevertheless had drawn 2 frames of comb and was starting to show eggs - with the help of some feeding of sugar, Tas thought it would make it through to the next 'dry'. Remember, we do not talk about winter here - there are only two seasons in the tropics - the wet and the dry.

Hives in the back yard, newly-collected swarm in the background

Hives in the back yard, newly-collected swarm in the background

To one side of the bush track was Tas’ truck, parked next to a large container in which the boxes of stickies were stored. Overheating of the frames in this container was a problem until Tas covered the container with a roofed frame. He has to store the frames in a container, as wax moth is a problem - all year round!! Behind the truck was an aluminium frame on which could be placed full supers while working hives. We had seen similar frames before, but never one this high - Tas proclaimed it to be one of the best things he has ever made, with few problems with his back since making it. Obviously WHS conscious, Tas also had cleats on all his boxes - handholds were a no-no!

Extracting in the tropics

Extracting in the tropics

Save your back!

Save your back!

As we walked through the bush, Tas also discussed the fact that the Katherine area seems to be much more productive in terms of nectar products than the Darwin area. His thinking was that this reflected the relative scarcity of insects in the Katherine region, and that the flora there has developed to secrete more nectar to attract the few insects available, than is the case around Darwin (where insects are abundant and the trees do not need to 'put out' much nectar to attract the insects.)

He also pointed out the differences in the vegetation. The ever-present termites means most of the tree trunks are eaten out, and are particularly susceptible to any 'hot' bush fires; instead of taking a year or two to recover, it can take five years or more, if indeed they do recover. This in turn led to a discussion about the changing treescape in the Darwin area. Gamba grass was introduced to the NT from South Africa, to improve grazing for cattle. In the last 5 – 10 years the Gamba grass has now spread over the Top End and is classed as a noxious weed. Gamba grass grows much more densely than the native Spear grass and produces an unnaturally high fuel load when burnt (and thus a much hotter fire). The propensity for the NT fire authorities to burn as much bush as possible at the start of every dry season means the tree scape is changing. Many of the mature trees are being replaced by smaller regrowth, which is then burnt again the following year. The evidence of this in the landscape was easily seen, and the following night on the Ghan enroute to Alice Springs, we, at one stage travelled for some 30 minutes next to burning bush.

Changing treescape, with more small trees. Note the termite mounds.

Changing treescape, with more small trees. Note the termite mounds.

By this time we had been out in the heat for long enough, it was time to retreat to the house for a stubbie and some air conditioning, NT style - a sprinkler on the pergola roof and some fans to blow a breeze through the outdoor entertainment area. Worked a treat! This gave us the opportunity to taste some of Tas’ honey - a strong, dark honey typical of the tropics. He labels it all (see the great label below) as ‘bush’ honey and with the distinctive NT label, it is a big seller with the tourists. Tas has also been a sponsor, for the last few years, of the Taste of the Territory Culinary Challenge, providing the honey for some of the special dishes prepared by the competing Chefs in the cook-off. Tas also does a fair amount of pollination work, a good money earner, particularly on melons in the dry season. However, indiscriminate spraying is a big problem, and the pollination is often required at a time when the bees could be making honey from native flora.

Humpty Doo apiaries

Humpty Doo apiaries

At this stage we had to return to our hotel to get ready for an early start on the Ghan the next day. We would like to thank Tas for his generosity in providing us with a wonderful insight into the peculiarities of keeping bees in the tropical climate ‘enjoyed’ by Darwin, even though it was too hot for us.

Author: Des Cannon