From ancient Egyptians to our beloved Winnie the Pooh, honey harvesting has been happening in our civilisation for a guesstimated 4500 years now, and we know well that a smackerel of honey not only sweetens a friendship and a cup of tea, but is a powerhouse of antioxidants with antibacterial and healing properties capable of boosting the immune system and soothing the common cold.
Bees themselves, apart from their enviable work ethic and brilliant architecture, are now endowed with the massive responsibility of pollinating the planet — and some say they hold the future of our food security, biodiversity and healthy ecosystems in their tiny, sticky hands.
So, what happens when bees go bad?
We’ve all encountered the final wrath of a dying Apis mellifera, a sting sharper than a thankless child — and potentially fatal for those prone to anaphylaxis. As much as we appreciate the benefits of bees, we don’t always love them living in close proximity and the removal of swarming bees is an issue for many people living in rural and semi-rural areas.
Local bee-keeper Dave McCormick has been ‘doing bees’ since he followed his dad around the farm as a little tacker and although he humbly calls himself a hobbyist, his understanding of the art of apiary is both intuitive and experienced. He explains what happens when a swarm of unwelcome bees take up residence at your home.
“When the hive outgrows an area, the queen and 40-60% of the workers leave, and they take approximately 5 days worth of food with them, enough so they can establish a new colony. She leaves a baby queen behind to replace her.”
The bees will cluster on a nearby object, usually a small tree or shrub, although Dave has seen them set up house in pots, walls, statues and all kinds of places. The swarm will often remain for a day or two while the worker bees search for a new home.
“I’ve heard a lot of misinformation of Facebook about what to do when a bee swarm lands on your property, there’s a few rogues out there doing the wrong thing too.”
If a bee swarms on your property, stay calm and don’t provoke them. The best thing to do is have them removed — and this is where knowing Dave comes in handy.
“My dad got me into bees. He was a farmer near Albany. His idea of bee keeping was a lot different to mine, but he used to do some smart things. We would catch swarms when his hives were low and he taught me how to bring them to ground.
“So basically, you get a sheet of tin and you bang it with a metal rod to simulate thunder. Bees don’t fly inclement weather, so they come to ground, because it’s all about protecting the queen.
“Then he’d send me over, just in my normal clothes — and this is where I got my no fear from (of bees), and then I’d put a potato sack around the swarm when it came down, then tie it off, put a bit of water on it, put it under a tree. That’s if one of his hives was empty. And because they were a bit feral, he’d actually buy a queen to replace the old one and funnily enough he was buying Rottnest queens back then.
“In 9 weeks that hive would become that queen, they’d go from feral and black — nasty — to nice and golden and gentle. He kept nice bees!”
Life has come full cycle for Dave who shares he is just about to make a major investment — an artificially inseminated Rottnest Island queen bee to improve genetics across his apiary.
An interesting aside for those who thought Rotto’s pristine waters were just for holidaying — here’s the buzz — the isolation of Rotto actually makes it the ideal location to breed a genetically pristine colony of bees! Each year around 600 virgin queens are taken to the island for mating with selected well-bred drones. Because drones can only fly around 12 km, there’s no risk of interaction with wild bees or those carrying disease.
The resulting fertilised queens are worth up to $1000 each, and are sought after in the beekeeping community.
Dave explains that the problem with many wild bee swarms is actually in-breeding- making the queen ‘cranky’. In well maintained hives beekeepers add new queens with diverse and docile genetics making the hives easier to work with — therefore making it easier to extract the honey. As Winnie the Pooh says, “The only reason for being a bee is to make honey. And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.”
While Dave’s full-time job is head bee-keeper at Fewster’s Honey in Muchea, his side hustle is building up his own hives — and in his spare time he’s more than willing to save the bees (I mean my honey) by rescuing and relocating unwanted swarms.
“If it’s a seriously tricky job I charge people. Up at New Norcia I had to cut a wedge about 8 feet long in a tree to remove a nasty swarm that was stinging the road workers. I charged for that!”
“But if someone has a swarm hanging from a tree, I’d rather me come and take it than let it go into their wall. Sometimes I’m happy to just get money for fuel — the old car doesn’t run on free diesel!”
Dave sells his raw bush honey under the brand McCormick Honey (a business in which he is in partnership with his son) and it’s available at the Northern Valleys Locavore Store in Bindoon as well as other local shops. On Saturday mornings he can often be found doing the rounds at Willowbank Caravan Park and he will even deliver on special request.