Hives of activity

PETER Norris doesn’t mince words. “The queens weren’t mated in time,” he says. “The Tasmanian natives, especially the blue gum and the prickly box, either came into flower late, or not at all.

“On top of that, the leatherwood flower (responsible for two-thirds of Tasmanian honey) is under real threat from forestry operations. “It was not a good year.” Mr Norris, who is president of the Southern Tasmanian Beekeepers Association, well knows the science of his field.

Thirty-five years has taught him the minute details of hive life. But there’s a limit. “You cannot beat the vagaries of nature,” he says. What the boss of Heritage Honey has done, however, is to reduce the risks to his bees and beehives created by Tasmania’s weather, and with that, the diseases endemic to bees and the conditions affecting their ability to produce honey.

Through his operations, much of it along the banks of the Derwent Valley, Mr Norris is driving a shift into hives made from a high-density polystyrene and away from the traditional wooden hive. He points out the efficiencies of the white boxes stacked two high at the Two Metre Tall Brewery site above New Norfolk.

“These we got from Finland. They fit together like a Lego block, with a rim that resists the incursion of rain or wind. More, there’s no condensation under the lid, which is a problem with wood hives in cold weather. “Most important in a place like the Derwent Valley, the polystyrene hive keeps the internal temperature stable and prevents fluctuations. “And while bees can handle cold, we’ve found that insulative effect means the queens start laying earlier, which means honey production begins sooner in the season so we are getting more honey, sometimes up to 30 per cent more, and we’re not having to feed them sugar during the winter. “Now if we could only get the trees and their flowers to cooperate in the same way!”

The polystyrene used in the Finnish product is designed to resist even the substantial chewing capacity of bees. Since trialling his first, called the Paradise Hive, some seven years ago, Mr Norris has switched his entire business away from wood. Other Tasmanian beekeepers – there are about 300 of them in the South alone – are following suit, some slowly. “We’re hoping that by the end of this month, a Canberra company called Hive IQ will be ready to switch from importing them to producing them onshore,” Mr Norris said.

He says the next generation of polystyrene hives will have built-in reporting systems and other electronics that will enable a beekeeper to know when, for instance, the combs are full of honey, all without having to leave his desk or computer.