Sandra SimpsonKeeping bees

Mike Crosby was busy planting his suburban Tauranga garden with as many fruit trees as he could fit in when he noticed something was missing – bees. A bit of internet research later and Mike had plans for a topbar hive, a DIY hive that lets bees build their comb beneath a wooden bar, thought to mimic nature more closely than a box-style hive. He now has two topbar hives and a three-box Langstroth hive – the latter contains 20,000 to 30,000 bees, while the topbar hives hold fewer. (More information about topbar hives available here)

A section of honeycomb from a topbar hive

A section of honeycomb from a topbar hive

Mike and wife Helen have so far this year had 30kg of honey from the box hive, “liquid sunshine”, but he says the real pleasure in keeping bees is the difference it has made to the fruit on his 900 square metre section, which include nectarines, apples, citrus, macadamia, guava, bananas, persimmons, feijoas, tamarillos and avocado, as well as berries, grapes, passionfruit, vegetables and self-pollinating figs.

Backyard beekeeper Mike Crosby (left) and Dennis Crowley, president of the local beekeepers’ association, open a topbar hive

Backyard beekeeper Mike Crosby (left) and Dennis Crowley, president of the local beekeepers’ association, open a topbar hive

“The plums, especially, have been dripping with fruit since we got bees, but everything has become really productive.”
Having bees has meant a change in the way Mike gardens.

“I used to use insecticides but stopped that when I got the bees. The only thing I use now is a bit of spraying oil and only on things that aren’t in flower – and I haven’t noticed a detrimental change to the garden. In fact, everything seems to get on fine without the insecticides. My main concern now is what others around me might be using on their flowers.”

Although he bought his first swarm, Mike has since captured wild swarms, saying the insects are “fairly calm” when they’re establishing a new home.

Mike Crosby delves into his Langstroth hive

Mike Crosby delves into his Langstroth hive

“It’s quite incredible the way a colony works,” Mike says. “They all have their own place and their own job.
“They love it when the sun hits the hive, their whole mood changes. But they get pretty cranky in wet and windy weather.”

Mike, who says he has rarely been stung, tends his hives year-round but doesn’t collect honey over the winter, leaving it for the bees to use as food.
“It’s interesting to go to the hives every couple of weeks and see how my mates are doing.
“It’s quite incredible the way the colony works, they all have their own place. If you watch the pattern they fly in they’re obviously talking to each other.”

Honeycomb being removed from a Langstroth frame. The beeswax is edible when the comb is fresh

Honeycomb being removed from a Langstroth frame. The beeswax is edible when the comb is fresh

Dennis Crowley, president of the Tauranga branch of the NZ Beekeepers Association, has helped Mike get set up – all hives need to be registered and a registered beekeeper needs to check hive health for hobby beekeepers.

Parasitic varroa mites are the biggest pests for beekeepers. Dennis describes a mite on a bee as being relative in size to a rat on a human. Some bees can have three or four mites on them. If a hive isn’t treated for varroa, Dennis expects the bees to all be dead within 12 months. (More information about varroa)

Mike recommends Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand by Murray Reid and Andrew Matheson as a useful reference book. It has been in print for 25 years and was last revised in 2011.

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Sandra Simpson

About Sandra Simpson

Sandra Simpson is a long-time journalist who in 2008 was asked to write a weekly garden feature for her local daily newspaper in Tauranga, New Zealand. Since then she’s visited beautiful gardens, met great people and attended several shows. In 2012 she started her own blog, Sandra’s Garden to share more of the people, places and events that make her corner of the world so bountiful.

4 thoughts on “Keeping bees

  1. Lois on said:

    We had a beekeeper come and talk at our garden club a couple of years ago and it was fascinating. If we didn’t have bees we wouldn’t have food. They are very important to our planet. Thanks for your article.

  2. Georgia Whyte on said:

    Very interesting – bees have always fascinated me and I love honey, especially NZ honey -YUM!
    Somehow I don’t think I could keep bees in my courtyard though!

    • Oh I don’t know. Apparently there’s a woman in a 3rd floor apartment in Neutral Bay who has a hive on her balcony. She made honey for TEDx Sydney!

  3. Sandra on said:

    Hello Georgia,

    See if you can find a DVD of the documentary “Queen of the Sun”. Well worth watching, both for the wake-up call about the threats bees face worldwide, as well as the various ways bees can be kept (look out for the naked beekeeper!).

    Bees need only the hive at homebase, they forage elsewhere. Have a look at this website, bees are also kept on the roof of The Ritz in London. http://www.urbanfarmonline.com/urban-livestock/bee-keeping/unexpected-beehives.aspx

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