Backyard beekeeping is the latest urban craze gallery video

Oliver Li/NZ Life & Leisure magazine​

Participation in hobby beekeeping has increased by 80 per cent in the past four years. So what's the buzz about?

The drone of motorway traffic used to be the only humming sound in New Zealand cities but these days there's another buzz about town – the growing popularity of urban beekeeping.

A beekeeper is no longer a man with a big bushy beard out in the wop-wops; he's just as likely to be the bloke over the back fence. Beehives, like barbecues, garden sheds, lemon trees and vege patches, are fast becoming Kiwi backyard essentials. There's no need for a sprawling rural property. Geoff Scott keeps two honeybee hives in a sunny spot tucked down the side of his Balmoral home.

Geoff, head chef and owner of award-winning restaurant Vinnies, lives metres from Dominion Road, one of Auckland's busiest streets, and while it's a tight squeeze down the side of house, his bees are happy as Larry.

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"I'm one year into beekeeping so I'm still learning but I love it," he says. "My very first season was just phenomenal; I split my hive, captured a swarm and did a honey harvest. We had enough to serve honeycomb and runny honey at the restaurant. My kids, Sam (10), Oliver (eight) and Zara (six), are into it too with their own little suits and learning about the bee life cycle."

Memberships in beekeeping clubs around the country are booming. The Auckland Beekeepers Club has expanded to 400 members and 100 people went through the group's introduction to beekeeping course last year. In the South Island both the North Canterbury and the Dunedin beekeeping clubs have gained momentum, rising from six to 85 members and six to 40 members respectivel

"In New Zealand we've gone from 'Let's grow our own vegetables' to 'Let's have chickens' to 'Let's add on some bees'," says Kim Poynter, president of the Rotorua Honeybee Club which has grown from 19 to 114 members in the past three years.]

Kevin Stent Kevin Stent Kevin Stent Kevin Stent Rose Cawley

Wellington nurse, Sharon Mackie in her beekeeping suit.

Sharon at work in her apiary at the Home of Compassion in Island Bay, Wellington.

"If you say you are into bees then it always strikes up a conversation in the tea room or wherever you are, and people seem to be very interested," Sharon says.

Sharon shares her honey with the nuns at the Home of Compassion. "We got 60 kilos off one hive, that’s just one hive. I’ve got more honey than I know what to do with, I can’t give it away," she says.

Sara Russ aka The Bee Lady, with students at River Hills Primary School in Pakuranga.

"The biggest misconception is that bees are scary," says Sara." It really comes down to lack of education."

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"People are learning about the importance of bees. I think it's linked to sustainability, that idea of knowing where our food comes from. People were growing their own food but weren't getting results because of the lack of pollination and that steered them towards beekeeping."

Greg Harrington, owner of Drury-based hobbyist beekeeping supply company The Bee Hive, says he can't keep up with demand. An introduction to beekeeping course he runs this month has already sold out. He might have to run another one.

"Beekeeping must be the fastest-growing hobby in New Zealand," he says. "I've had all sorts of people through my course: half a dozen police officers, one judge, two doctors, builders and mums. Most of the people who came to our stand [at field days] were predominantly people in the 25-35 age group who are aware that there is a decline in the bee population in the world."


Photo: Kevin Stent

Bee numbers are in serious decline internationally due to factors such as colony collapse disorder, which sees worker bees abandon their hives. American beekeepers report losses of up to 90 percent in some cases, prompting fears of crop shortages.

While New Zealand does not have colony collapse disorder, the Varroa destructor mite, American Foulbrood bacterial disease and more recently the discovery of the Lotmaria passim parasite in Coromandel, threatens New Zealand's $187 million honey export industry.

Sharon Mackie has been beekeeping for three years.

Sharon Mackie has been beekeeping for three years.

READ MORE: Bee colonies wiped out as new parasite spreads through New Zealand

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Despite these serious challenges, the number of registered hives in New Zealand reached 500,000 in 2014, an increase of 55,000 from the previous year according to data from the

Ministry for Primary Industries. Although this increase is largely driven by commercial producers chasing the manuka honey boom, hobbyist beekeepers with fewer than five hives make up 3162 of the total 4814 registered beekeeping enterprises in New Zealand. Numbers of hobbyist beekeepers have increased by 81 percent since 2010.


Sharon Mackie, Wellington

Winter is a good time of year to get started in beekeeping before the springtime rush, says Sharon. Photo: Kevin Stent

While many newbie beekeepers find donning their white beekeeping suit and mask a daunting experience, Sharon doesn't blink an eye. The Wellington nurse has been beekeeping for only three years but is familiar with protective suits after travelling to Sierra Leone last year to help with the ebola crisis. "Some people say that my beekeeper's suit is not unlike the PPE [biohazard suit] that we had to wear in Sierra Leone, but I know which one I prefer," she says.

Sharon keeps her 11 hives in the grounds of the Home of Compassion in Island Bay, sharing the honey with the nuns. The tranquil setting is an antidote to her taxing work at the NGO PACT, where she helps people with mental illnesses enter the workforce.

Photo: Kevin Stent

"I love beekeeping because when you go to the hives, you can't be rushed," she says.

"It's a good de-stresser because you do have to be calm for the bees. Seeing the bees thrive is quite magical really.

"You find a connection with nature because beekeeping is all to do with the seasons. It's interesting watching the honey come in. When the pohutukawa is in flower the bees go mad for that and when they bring it in it's a white, clear honey."

Sara Russ with her daughter Bobby at the hives at Bastion Point, Orakei Marae.  Photo: Oliver Li

Sara Russ, Auckland

Sara became The Bee Lady by default. The former hobbyist turned queen bee breeder collects swarms around the city and tends to urban hives such as those kept at the old concrete fort at Orakei marae. It was through her work that she earned the moniker that steered her into a new career teaching Kiwi kids about bees.

"When I'd call up someone about collecting a swarm of bees the kids would say, 'Oh mum, the bee lady is on the phone," Sara says. "It was [collecting swarms] that made me realise there was a real lack of understanding of what bees did and why they were important."

Sara has visited more than 30 schools in Auckland, wearing her striped socks and yellow hat, spreading the word about bees. She is also in discussion with Enviroschools about establishing a Bees in Schools programme.

"Bees aren't around as much and that connection has been lost to the younger generation," says Sara, whose daughter Bobby (seven) is not afraid to walk around her mum's hives.

"Most kids only have the understanding that bees will sting you. I often get letters after I've been to a school and they will say things like, 'I thought bees were scary, but now I know they're not.'"

Sara Russ has visited more than 30 schools in the Auckland region. Photo Rose Cawley/Eastern Courier


* Find a local club. Most beekeeping clubs offer introductory courses and public field days.

The National Beekeepers Association has a list of groups around New Zealand.

* Check your local council bylaws and talk with your neighbours before setting up a hive. Bees can be taken away if neighbours consider they are a nuisance so consider their flight paths and whether anyone nearby has a bee allergy.

* Hives can be purchased on Trade Me, but a cheaper way to get started is to ask a hobby beekeeper to split their hive. The Bee Hive specialises in equipment for hobby beekeepers. All hives are legally required to be registered with Asure Quality

* September is Bee Aware month; look out for activities nationwide.

* Still not sure you want bees? Some companies offer an adopt-a-hive or hive rental services where, for a fee, hives on your property are managed by professional beekeepers.

Click here to tell us about your bee adventures.

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 - NZ Life & Leisure


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