The Honey Bee in Australia, A Bicentennial Looms

The Honey Bee in Australia Part 1: A Bicentennial Looms. Prior to European settlement in Australia, the indigenous peoples had for generations been harvesting ‘sugarbag’…

The Honey Bee in Australia Part 1: A Bicentennial Looms.

Prior to European settlement in Australia, the indigenous peoples had for generations been harvesting ‘sugarbag’ honey, a valuable form of bush tucker from the nest of native stingless bees. In recent times, there has been renewed interest in keeping native stingless bees, but although this may be a very rewarding pursuit for hobbyists, these species do not produce great quantities of honey. It is generally accepted that European honey bees (Apis mellifera) were first successfully introduced into Australia in 1822 aboard the Isabella, a merchant ship charged with transporting convicts to the fledgling colony in New South Wales. So, the bees have a big birthday celebration coming up next year!

Along with some two hundred convicts (none of whom, incidentally, died en route, which must have been something of a record at the time) the vessel’s master, Captain John Wallis, brought with him seven hives, which were auctioned the week after his arrival in Sydney. There is some doubt concerning the subsequent success of these bees – and later importations, such as the colonies that arrived in the Phoenix in 1824 – with reports suggesting that they may have absconded for ‘the woods’. In 1831, surgeon-superintendent Dr T. B. Wilson arrived in Hobart on the convict transport John with a single colony of honey bees in a ‘wire case’. By all accounts, these bees prospered, swarming several times in the first year. In 1835, a hive descended from Dr Wilson’s was observed to have swarmed no less than eighteen times, and bees of this lineage were eventually also shipped to Sydney.

In 1845, a Mr E Capper of Maitland, shipped just over 350 kilograms of honey, together with some beeswax, from Sydney to Britain in six small wooden casks. The success of this endeavour resulted in honey being touted as a valuable additional source of income for farmers; at this time beekeeping generally remained a part-time activity. Additional introductions continued: the Caucasian honey bee (Apis mellifera caucasia), a gentle subspecies that is a strong producer of honey, was the first to become established, while the Carniolan honey bee (A. m. carnica) arrived on our shores about 150 years ago. This subspecies is renowned for being very docile and resistant to pests and diseases. Then in the early 1880s Italian honey bees or Ligurian bees (A. m. ligustica) were brought from Italy. These bees are widely cultivated across Europe and America due to their high productivity and ease of management. Ligurian bees were quickly introduced to Kangaroo Island, which was declared a bee sanctuary in 1886 – the oldest in the world. Due to its isolation, and the exclusion of other subspecies, Kangaroo Island now boasts the last genetically pure strain of Ligurian bee in the world, and Ligurian bee honey from the island has been promoted as a candidate for inclusion in the ‘Ark of Taste’, an international catalogue of endangered heritage foods. Most honey bees cultivated in Australia today are a hybrid of these three subspecies.

By the late 1800s, the beekeeping industry was beginning to take shape, and apiarist groups were formed in South Australia, Queensland and Victoria. The Langstroth hive (patented in 1852) had been adopted by Australian beekeepers by 1872 and this facilitated greater ease of management and enhanced production; modern smokers were also in use by 1895. Barnes Honey, a commercial brand that remains popular to this day, was established in 1876, and the original site of the family’s operations in the Southern Grampians region of Victoria remains of historical significance, with a row of yellow box trees (Eucalyptus melliodora) denoting the site of the old apiary.

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