It’s not just about collecting honey and making candles. Backyard beekeepers are playing a vital role in rebuilding the local bee populations.

Key points:

  • Backyard beekeeping as a hobby has risen in popularity during the pandemic
  • Hobbyists are helping bring back bee stocks after the Black Summer bushfires
  • At least 10,000 hives were lost in the Upper Murray region

Tucked away in the suburbs of Wodonga, city councillor John Watson has stacks of colourful bee boxes in his backyard.

He says it’s a hobby he has watched explode in popularity over the past five years.

Active bees on a beehive are placated by pumped smoke.

John Watson records everything that his bees produce. (ABC Rural: Annie Brown )

“We really do need bees for our pollination and for our fruit and veggies. Everything that comes into your supermarket is pollinated by a bee.”

A retired farmer, John received his first hive five years ago as a gift. He says he can see the critical role bees play outside our backyard.    

“I think it’s great for our environment, particularly with the fires in Corryong district. Hundreds and hundreds of hives were wiped out, and native bees as well.”

Bee population decimated in the Upper Murray

In the Upper Murray region, the bee population was decimated by the 2019/2020 summer bushfires after more than 430,000 hectares of land were burnt.

Two people in bee suits checking inside a bee box.

Matt Gledhill and his son Clancy work with bees in the Upper Murray region. (ABC Rural: Annie Brown)

Full-time apiarist Matt Gledhill,  runs 400 beehives around the region, putting them to work on pollinating crops like canola and collecting honey.

He says the bee population is still recovering from devastating bushfires 18 months ago.  

A man leans on a fence with green grass and a tree covered hill in the distance.

Matt Gledhill from Mountain Bee honey says the bee population has been decimated in the Upper Murray. (ABC Rural: Annie Brown )

“A lot of natural hives and a lot of natural insects have just been decimated because there’s just nothing left,” Mr Gledhill said. 

“I live at Pine Mountain, and when I look across at it and there’s still now nothing growing on the tops of those hills.

A man in a bee suit opens up a bee box.

Matt Gledhill checks on his bees doing a pollination job on a canola crop in Khancoban. (ABC Rural: Annie Brown )

Mr Gledhill says it is hard to put an exact number on how many hives were lost, and he says it will have a long-term impact.

 “I’ve heard reports of 10,000 hives, but on top of that all the wild colonies out there as well: It’s huge the loss that we’ve had,” Mr Gledhill said. 

“I’ve spoken to other beekeepers who have had sites up here in the mountains and they think it’ll take 25 years at least for the flowers on those trees to come back, so it’s a long-term impact.”

Mr Gledhill believes the rise in popularity of hobby beekeeping could have a lot to do with the pandemic.

“We’ve set up an Albury amateur Bee Keepers Association and we’re nearly up to 50 members so it’s really taking off,” Mr Gledhill said. 

“I think to a certain degree with the pandemic and people being stuck at home, and they are starting to realise that we need to make food, so it’s really blossoming out of that.”

From amateur to apiarist

Hobby beekeeper, Pam Noonan worked alongside Matt Gledhill in the Upper Murray recovering hives after the bushfires.

“I did have bees before the bushfires, unfortunately lost that hive in the fires … along with Matthew Gledhill, [he] lost half of his beehives as well,” Ms Noonan said. 

A collapsed gum tree, burnt at the stump and a box of bees, collecting the swarm.

Pam Noonan and Matt Gledhill got the call out to pick up a swarm that survived the bushfires in the Upper Murray. (Supplied: Pam Noonan )

“I started up a ‘gofundme’ to help Matt rejuvenate his hives and in the process, got contacted by a farmer that said, ‘We’ve got a hive that’s fallen over in a tree that was burnt out in the fires.’ So I called Matt and we went out and took a chainsaw.”

Her passion has led Ms Noonan to pursue beekeeping full-time.

A close up of bees from a hive on a honey frame.

Matt Gledhill runs 400 bee hives around the Upper Murray region. (ABC Rural: Annie Brown )

“And whether it’s the smell of the honey or the warmth of the sun, just being a part of that process, I think it’s a really good way of getting back to nature.”

Joy from just one hive

With spring in full bloom, John Waton’s Hives are keeping him busy in his backyard. He encourages anyone who is interested to step inside a bee suit.   

“I’d come and see someone who is doing it to start with.

“I’d get on the internet and look at lots of videos about bees and I’d join a bee club,” Mr Watson said. 

“There’s lots of people in bee clubs who haven’t got bees yet … you can find a mentor and go out and start your first hive. Don’t go big to start with, one hive for the first 12-18 months is just fine.”

A man smiles at the camera.

When John Watson is not tending to his bees, he is attending meetings as a Councillor for the city of Wodonga. (ABC Rural: Annie Brown)

Posted , updated 

‘For the smell of the honey, warmth of the sun’: Backyard beekeepers help revive bee stocks
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