Backyard bees Feed

Organic food is good for biodiversity and bees

Organic-food-is-good-for-biodiversity-and-bees. Little eco footprints

I grow my own veggies organically and often buy organic food. There are many reasons why I favour organic. I prefer my food be free of pesticide residues and I’d rather support small, sustainable farmers than large-scale industrialised agribusinesses. But the main reason I buy organic is that it’s better for the environment. Or is it? Robert Paarlberg, in his book Food Politics, suggests that my preference for organic food may be misguided.

I read Paarlberg’s 2010 book recently and it had me scrambling to double-check the environmental benefits of organic farming.

For me, it’s important to know the story behind my food. Permaculturalist Nick Ritar suggests that "every bite of food is a reflection of your ethics". "That doesn’t mean becoming a food snob who is a pain in the arse at every dinner party, but it does mean that when you buy something, you exercise your power by taking the time to understand what you are giving your money to."

What is organic farming? 

Organic food is grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers or pesticides. Instead, natural processes are embraced. Soil fertility is maintained using compost, crop rotation and manures. Weeds are controlled using mechanical cultivation, mulch and cover crops. Insect pests are kept at bay using a range of techniques including relying on 'good bugs' to eat the 'bad bugs'.

Is it better for the environment? 

Whether or not organic farming is better for the environment overall has been hotly debated for years. The focus of the debate has been on whether or not decreased yields from organic farms could have the unfortunate result of increasing the total area of land under agricultural production, resulting in more widespread deforestation and biodiversity loss, and thus undermining the environmental benefits of organic practices.

This argument is increasingly being dismissed as over-simplistic. Yields can be increased through improved farming practice and careful selection of varieties. Yield is also only one of many factors to consider when balancing the benefit of organic farming.

Environmental benefits of organic farming

What is clear is that organic farms are better at protecting biodiversity than conventional farms. A recent study by Oxford University found that organic farms support 34% more plant, insect and animal species than conventional farms. It also found that the benefit was most pronounced for organic farms in intensively farmed regions and that small farms do a better job of protecting biodiversity. The benefit of organic farming was most pronounced for pollinators such as bees, with organic farms supporting 50% more pollinator species.

Pesticide use is having a particularly devastating impact on bees. Recent research from Harvard University has confirmed that pesticides, neonicotionoids in particular, are likely to be responsible for the massive colony collapse disorder happening in honey bees.

The environmental benefits of organic farming extend beyond biodiversity and bees.

Conventional farming is dependent upon large amounts of inorganic fertiliser. The manufacture of synthetic fertilisers is energy-intensive, uses large amounts non-renewable natural gas and contributes greatly to greenhouse gas emissions. Synthetic fertilisers also dissolve in water more readily than organic fertilisers and can leach through the soil and pollute groundwater, nearby waterways and ultimately, the ocean.

So after wading through the recent literature, I’m confident that my preference for organic food isn’t misguided. My resolve to support small local sustainable farms is stronger than ever.

Introducing organic farms into already intensively farmed landscapes can boost biodiversity, provide a pesticide-free haven for pollinators, and play a major role in halting the loss of biodiversity.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 2nd June 2014.

Bee friendly to native bees: how to build a solitary bee hotel

Native-solitary-bee-hotel-made-from-recycled-materials. Little eco footprints

I’ve fallen in love with Australian native bees. A brief encounter with a beautiful Blue Banded Bee has me wanting to encourage these helpful insects into my garden. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to welcome native bees into our backyards.

The benefits of Australian native bees

When most people think of bees, they think of the introduced European honeybee, but Australia actually has more than 1,600 species of native bees.

Australian bees play a vital role in pollinating our native flora and are also increasingly being valued as a pollinator for agricultural crops. Their small size allows them to easily negotiate small flowers and in many cases they are more effective pollinators than honeybees.

Native bees are harmless. Some can’t sting and those that can are typically too small to deliver an effective sting and are unlikely to sting unless picked up. Their non-aggressive nature and ability to thrive in urban areas makes them a safe option for people wanting to enjoy the pollination benefits of bees without the hassle of keeping honeybees.

Australian native bee habitat

Most Australian native bees are solitary. They live alone or in small groups and nest in burrows in the ground, hollow stems of dead plants, or tunnels bored into dead wood by other insects. There are also a handful of social species that live in colonies and build nests in tree cavities and hollow logs.

How to encourage native bees into your backyard

To attract native bees into your garden, plant a diversity of flowering plants, steer clear of pesticides, retain dead wood and provide a source of water. It’s a good idea to set aside a small untidy ‘wild’ area where you leave dead stems and branches. Provide flowers of various sizes and colours and ensure that something is in bloom all year round so that the bees have a continuous supply of nectar and pollen.

Handmade-native-solitary-bee-hotel. Little eco footprints

Solitary native bees can be encouraged by providing nesting habitats. Little Eco and I created a bee hotel (also known as trap nests and bee condos) out of old concrete blocks filled with nesting material. We included bamboo canes, making sure to leave a joint to close the back of the stem; a piece of hardwood with holes drilled in it, each 3 – 9 mm wide and at least 80 mm deep; and naturally holey bits of rotten timber. There’s a roof to protect the nests from rain and it’s placed against a tree to protect the rear. 

Baby-bees-are- growing-our-bee-hotel. Little eco footprints

Much to our amazement the hotel was occupied almost as soon as it was opened. Six holes in the hardwood are now home to bee larvae. The visible plugs of mud indicate that a female bee has deposited eggs before sealing off the chamber.

Enthused by our initial success we’re creating more nesting habitats. We’ll be hanging bundles of hollow stems to attract Reed Bees; creating mud blocks to attract Blue Banded Bees; and drilling holes in some of our old tree stumps and blocks of timber to attract Resin Bees and Leafcutter Bees.

You can increase native bee numbers in your backyard even further by introducing a colony of stingless bees. Native stingless bee hives can be purchased or you can build your own hive and get a colony from another native beekeeper that has split their hive.

If you are interested in keeping stingless bees, native bee expert Tim Heard delivers regular workshops (including one here in Newcastle in October).

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 5th May 2014.

Glorious golden raw honey from my very own bees

Remember my backyard bees? I sadly had to say goodbye to my bee hive almost a year ago because of an unhappy neighbour. Close neighbours are definitely one of the major downsides of living in an urban area.

The hive has been living in the country near my Dad's place since then. I finally had the chance to harvest some glorious golden raw honey from my hive over the christmas holidays.


How gorgeous is this honey!


Here's my hive in it's new home. Surrounded by fields of Canola and an incredible amount of Scotch Thistle. Both much loved by honey bees.

Want to know a little about how honey is extracted?

Here's how we extracted our simple raw honey.


Before we opened the hive we calmed the bees down with smoke. After opening the top of the hive we removed each frame and brushed all the bees off. A sting on the thigh reminded my Dad not to brush the bees onto your shoes, because they'll quickly climb under your pants and up your legs. 


Here's Daddy Eco in his safety gear. The only protective clothing we bought was the net veil. He wore jeans tucked into his socks, a long sleeve shirt, rubber gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat covered with the veil. It's a good look isn't it.

You can buy big fancy suits, hoods and gloves, but really all you need to do is ensure your skin is totally covered and there is nowhere the bees can crawl into.



We placed the frames to be extracted into a box we had waiting in the car.


Little Eco insisted on sampling every frame.



To extract the honey we first removed the caps with an electric uncapping knife. The cappings are collected and melted down to get the wax.


We then placed the frames (three at a time) into an extractor. Each frame is spun first with one side outward, then flipped to expose the other side. The honey flows out of the honeycomb and drips down the inside of the drum to collect at the bottom of the extractor....


...where it pours into a bucket below. We didn't filter our honey and simply let it settle in the buckets for a while, waiting for any little bits of wax to float the top. I'm impatient, so we're planning to buy a strainer so we don't have to wait for the settling next time.


We have a tap on the bottom of the buckets and the following day we simply poured the honey into jars.


Little Eco was one very proud bottler.

Honey recipes

With all this honey to enjoy, I've been checking out honey recipes. Here's a few I plan to try soon.

Honey banana bread

Honey and rosewater baklava

Vegetables with honey mustard sauce

Honey Nutters

Honey Oat Cookies

Honey Sweet Cornbread

Do you know any good honey recipes? Please share.

I'm also thinking of brewing a batch of Mead. Anyone know what it tastes like? Or tried making it?


{this moment}

Happy New Year! I hope you are all enjoying the holiday season. I'm enjoying mine so much i'm not yet ready to spend time in front of the computer. Perhaps i'll be back properly in a few days. 

I've been thinking about my word for 2011. A 'thing' to focus on. Last year it was 'wellbeing'. I'm thinking I need to repeat that word again and give it the attention it deserves. Or perhaps i'll choose 'connect' or 'simplify'. 

How about you? Do you have a word for 2011? Did you have a word for 2010 and did you give it the attention it deserved? 

{this moment} - A Friday ritual (a day late this week. Couldn't bring myself to get on the computer yesterday). A single photo - no words - capturing a moment from the week. A simple, special, extraordinary moment. A moment I want to pause, savor and remember.  Inspired by Soule Mama.

Inside our (now gone) backyard bee hive

As mentioned, our backyard bees have gone. In my case, it was impossible to have backyard bees and happy neighbours. The hive will eventually go back to my dads place, and is currently holidaying at my uncles, as their isn’t enough pollen near Dad’s block until spring, when the Canola flowers. My uncle lives adjacent to a National Park which environmentally, is not an ideal place to keep bees. I prefer honeybees be kept in urban or agricultural landscapes given their potential threat to native flora and fauna.

I’ll visit my Dad when the honey is ready to harvest and will be involved in the whole process of harvesting and extraction. It’s not the same as having them in my backyard – but at least I’ll still learn about beekeeping so that I’ll be ready for the day I can have backyard bees again.

I’m sad…and I’m extremely annoyed…but I won’t dwell on these feelings in this post. Trust me, I have plenty to say about how detached we are from nature and our food production and I’ll get around to sharing these feelings. It’s ridiculous how much hysteria and fear these small harmless useful creatures can create??!!! I’m even more passionate now about urban nature.

But onto the fun and positive…Opening the hive was an experience. I couldn’t believe the incredibly loud buzz from the hive when it was opened. The bees showed no sign of aggression.

First we went off on a treasure hunt in search of some Casuarina leaves to use in the smoker.


Back with the hive…we started a fire with newspaper in the smoker and added the Casuarina leaves.


Then there was smoke, and lots of it. Less than a minute later our neighbour was peering over our fence.

Our backyard is only 10 metres wide – so the smoke was very noticeable. I don’t think our neighbours would have even discovered we had bees if it wasn’t for the smoke. Perhaps there are other ways of settling bees before opening a hive? Or perhaps its best to wait until your neighbours are out if you want to avoid them knowing about your bees? I’d love to hear from others with backyard bees. How do your neighbours react? Do they know you have bees? If not, how do you hide them?

We only checked the frames in the top hive given that we were rather flustered by the encounter with the neighbour.

We were surprised by the presence of a few queen bee cells. Each hive has only one queen bee, and the creation of a new queen indicates the colony is getting ready to swarm (the old queen bee will leave the hive, leaving the new queen with the hive) or that a new queen is needed because the current queen is unwell or dead.


We assumed the queen bee was in the bottom hive as she would have been moving away from the smoke and put in a queen excluder to prevent her leaving the hive and to prevent her laying brood in the top hive (I know there is probably appropriate terminology that I’m not using for top and bottom hive – but please excuse my newness to beekeeping).

My Dad probably should have been wearing bee safety gear, but I imagine many beekeepers become a little lax over time once they realise how rarely bees are aggressive. I was comfortable being at the hive without safety gear. That said – it would have been wiser for us to wear protective gear just in case. I also probably should have set a better example for Little Eco by wearing the gear. Speaking of Little Eco – she comfortably used to walk up to the hive to watch the bees – A huge contrast to the fear seen in our neighbours! Again – highlighting the importance of ‘knowing nature’. I love that Little Eco respects bees and understands that they make our honey.


And the best bit…you can see some capped honey. I wonder what it is going to taste like? It will be an interesting batch of honey – the taste of rural, urban and bushland Australia – all mixed in together by some cute little critters.