Melbourne’s super bees

Alf Brugman Beekeeping Blog

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a Victorian regional apiary inspector who referred to “those super Melbourne bees.” At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to his words but subsequent experiences made me realise that there was a lot in what he said.

Migratory beekeepers may not all be aware of the unique problems faced by their urban counterparts. These “problems” are ones that bigger beekeepers sometimes wish they had, particularly when pollen availability and variety are scarce.

I have, for over 25 years, collected swarms from most of the Melbourne metropolitan area. I have realized over time that the more people who buy a single hive to keep in their backyard, the more swarms I will collect.

Why is this?

The reason, of course, is partially because inexperienced beekeepers don’t inspect their hive in the early spring to decrease the likelihood of swarming. However, a lot of the time, the conditions in many suburbs can make it almost impossible to prevent swarming. Unlike the migratory beekeepers who move hives into eucalyptus forests which have prolific flowering of a single species with an abundant pollen supply, the pollen flow is superior in quality in many urban situations.

The variety of pollens from exotic plantings and many different natives from all over Australia is huge. So many species from all over the world which are tended and watered by the population are a paradise for the resultant “super bee”.

We have all read about the levels of amino acids and proteins in the bodies of bees which have access to a wide variety of pollens. The colonies in the suburbs thrive during the winter and in early spring the build up of population is rapid and hives are boiling over with healthy, well nourished bees. Combine that with supers of unextracted honey and honey bound brood chambers and swarming is a formality.

Even the well organized beekeeper can become undone by these urban conditions. Many people do not realize that another consideration is that Melbourne is often the warmest part of the state in the winter.In the box ironbark forests of central Victoria, the minimum temperature in winter is frequently zero degrees or lower whereas Melbourne is 8 degrees or more. Even though the north of the state may have a higher maximum, it takes the bees so long to warm up and leave the cluster that they hardly fly for the whole day. Bees in the city will start flying when the temperature goes above 12 or 13 degrees and haven’t been chilled to the same extent.

Last year, a friend asked me to place a hive in his backyard in a south eastern suburb. This hive began from a small to medium sized swarm and rapidly expanded to produce three full boxes of honey for the season. In late August this year I received a call from my friend to say that there were lots of drones flying around and bees were banked up at the entrance trying to get in. I opened the hive on a warm day and decongested the brood chamber and gave them two frames of foundation in positions 2 and 7 and made sure that there were empty frames above the excluder so the bees would not sense themselves to be honey bound.

It is now mid September and I received a call to say they had swarmed. On further examination, despite cool spring weather, the bees had drawn out the foundation and covered the frames with brood and filled the empty frames above with honey.

Super Melbourne bees indeed!