History's B side
By Brad Collis
The devastating bushfires in eastern Australia over summer wiped out hundreds of forest bee sites and thousands of hives. It is a disaster that experts say will take a decade or more to recover from – and by extension this also means adjacent cropping industries that rely on bee pollination.
It is a reminder of how precious bees are to us. Honey was the easy-to-access energy source that allowed a weak furry tree-living mammal to evolve into the most dominant species on the planet. As that species we need to remember how we got here (and why raw honey is still able to supercharge our cellular health. It is part of our biological make-up).
This connection is why beekeeping is one of the oldest forms of agriculture and why beekeepers form such special bonds with these extraordinary, socially complex, tireless workers.
Consequently there was added poignancy to the recovery of a special piece of forgotten beekeeping history in South Gippsland undertaken recently with a friend on whose land this occurred.
Deep within isolated, impenetrable, bushland on the coast near Cape Liptrap which juts from the Australian mainland into the Southern Ocean, there lived in the 1960s a hermit beekeeper and his deaf and dumb son. There is no record of why they lived alone and isolated or what happened to them in the end, but decades later a friend, Richard, bought the bushland – under strict conditions that it never be cleared except for enough space to build his own getaway house overlooking the ocean and surrounding tea tree and banksia forest. He learned of the beekeeper and his son and had even found traces of a track, the beekeeper’s track, as it was marked on old local maps, which passed through the coastal park to a far distant road. Then one day after months of painstaking exploration, Richard found the cottage; a memory box of two lonely lives six decades ago … along with wall cavities into which the descendants of the beekeeper’s hives have lived ever since. That’s more than 240 bee generations!
Now it was time to move them out to allow the cottage to be saved and restored. It was an amazing sight and experience as we carefully cut away comb to rehouse the bees in a modern hive. The queen was impossible to find (among the tens of thousands of her Carniolan workers) so it was with hope that we made the transfer. By the time the new hive was full of comb with a good mix of pollen, honey, and brood it was clear from the bees’ behaviour that the queen had been successfully transferred.
It meant this living legacy will continue, as will the long forgotten home of a beekeeper and his son.