Sister act for busy bees

THEY’VE come from across the South-East, from the Derwent Valley to the Tasman Peninsula and Circular Head, down to the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, Hobart and the Huon, Launceston across to Devonport. Their interest is a creature so small that 50,000 of them weigh just 5kg. That creature is the humble bee, the unpaid pollinator that’s essential to Tasmania’s landscape and its entire agricultural sector. These 30 women at the Tea Tree Hall are a new community of beekeepers – and would-be beekeepers – who’ve come together as Sister Hives, a year-old group keen to learn the intricacies of apiology.

Sister Hives began like so many things, with a conversation over a kitchen table. In this case, the table belonged to Anita Long, a Richmond apiarist for about a decade. Her guest was South Arm beekeeper Jenni McLeod, also the kind of person able to channel a group’s interests towards a single goal. “The question arose,” says Anita, “I wonder if there are people like us, intrigued by bees and their key role in how the natural world works. “The answer was a resounding ‘yes!’ ” adds Jenni. “So we went to work.” Within a short space of time they’d attracted a modest grant from the State Government designed to foster entrepreneurial activities in Tasmania. Expecting applications from 25 interested women, the pair received 60. “We decided to expand our plans to be able to accept every woman who wanted to come,” says Anita.

The result has been a collation of the like-minded, a statewide community similar to that formed within hives themselves. “We’re sisters,” says Anita. “Not by family, but in spirit.” This group of women, most in their 30s and 40s, radiates an easy camaraderie. Today, they’ve brought food to share, and of course tea, sweetened by honey. They wear teeshirts with a simple logo created by one member, Kristen, and printed by another, Tash. They’re already prepared for a visit to some hives a few hundred metres from the Tea Tree Hall, their footwear no-nonsense Blundstones or heavyweight trainers.

Anita and Jenni have put together a12-month program, with monthly meetings that cover every aspect of beekeeping. A printed program guides the conversation, provides feedback, contacts and professional resources. The participants are learning about the lifecycle of bees, workers and queens, what care bees need, checking for pests, getting to the bottom of the hive. The multiple diseases and pests impacting bees mean entire colonies sometimes need to be purged. This is not, we learn quickly, a venture for the faint hearted. When the subject turns to beekeeping’s benefits to the humans in the room there’s a near-chorus of agreement. A good deal of technical questions are answered here by Anita and Jenni.

There’s talk of hives in plastic, foams and wood, of the frames that support the honey, of a ‘starving’ hive, drone broods and bee genetics. A reference to lazy drones spurs a quiet smile sideways at the only man here today, this reporter. No slight meant, no offence taken. Spring has had a cool start, we’re told, and that’s having an impact on on pollination. Then the group moves to an explanation of the working of an extractor for a hive’s honey. “There’s an old joke that for every three beekeepers, there are 10 opinions on how to deal with things,” notes Jenni. “We try to narrow that down a little with these monthly sessions.” “Bees don’t like space in the hive,” Anita tells the group. “And they don’t like straight lines. Bees need the optimum space in the hive and if left to their own devices will build kinds of beautiful shapes.” Who knew?

So many revelations about bees that a visitor is left with his mouth open. The group has moved on to some human housekeeping matters: Alcohol washes for bees have been sent by BioSecurity Tasmania. A Queensland expert on queens, Kevin Tracy, is about to make a visit to a Sister Hives meet. Next it’s breaking into small groups that reflect geographic areas, where there’s commonalities of terrain and vegetation. They have workbooks in front of them. Jenni and Anita move between groups, asking and answering questions: there’s talk of lavender, of placing hives in an orchard, even how to keep bees when you live in a small apartment.

“Ultimately, we want the hive to thrive,” says Anita. A quick look around the room at this community, at this vibrancy of Tasmanian women – the word ‘hive’ comes to mind – shows they’ve already.