Commercial Beekeeping: Andrew Morcom on Securing Apiary Sites and Working Bees on Australian Natives

Andrew Morcom of The Bee Saver and AC8 Apiaries chats about the hard work he puts in to secure commercial apiary sites with valuable Australian native floral resources.

When he’s not swamped with swarm and hive removal jobs for The Bee Saver, commercial beekeeper Andrew Morcom (also of AC8 Apiaries) is likely to be on the road. Morcom drives all over the state every year to find and secure ideal apiary sites.

Doing this “groundwork” is a crucial part of his operation – finding the sites, reviewing them, building relationships and negotiating contracts so he can ensure a continuous supply of good quality nectar and pollen for his working girls. So we asked him what flora he prefers to work his bees on. His short answer? Eucalypts.

“Marri, the Jarrah. Not that there’s much Jarrah around,” he elaborates. “Powder Bark, Wandoo, Mallet, anything out the Goldfields way. Mallee down south. Yate. So, any of the eucalypts, because they all flower at specific times and it’s only the one variety that flowers [at a time]…”

“…they have their set seasons, eucalypts, so [the bees] go from the Mallet flowers, and then usually after the Mallet we’ve got the Jarrah, Black Butt, Red Gum and then we’re in the Yate and then the Malees.”

The bees don’t seem to mind the year-round workload either. Bees live to work, and in the warmer Australian climates the winter shut-down isn’t always necessary.

“We notice when you shift from one site… into a new site the bees suddenly get all excited and they just flood the hives with nectar,” says Morcom.

“All of the sudden you know, within a week the second decks full and within 10 days you’ve got comb being built in the lids, and you get a good extraction.

Then you go back two weeks later and you get another extraction, and then two weeks after that… but they’re not quite as full, the second deck still has dry frames in it… so that [the apiary] is moved straight away, within a couple of days of that extraction.

So you’ve just got to upkeep that rotation. To do that though, you’ve got to drive around. We’re always looking for the next flow”.

Securing an annual calendar of sites is ongoing for a commercial apiary operation, all on top of the hard work of moving hives from site to site. And finding good sites in the first place is a competitive business.

“It’s a lot harder if you don’t know anyone with sites. It’s very difficult if you don’t do the groundwork yourself. And if you don’t know where to go to borrow sites [then] there is nowhere, that’s the problem.”

Morcom’s research involves checking for registered sites in close proximity of sites he is prospecting. If there’s another large apiary that is registered nearby, it is best practice not to impinge on that site. Besides, your bees will be competing for nectar and pollen (and they are already competing with feral bees). But experience has shown him that not everyone is considerate (or perhaps aware) of this issue.

“As soon as it gets tough like this season… we’ve already had people just dumping bees in the bush 50 meters away from a registered site. You go to put [your] bees on [the site] and [there’s] already bees there.

Some are recreational, some of them small commercial operators. And it’s just, really, they’re stealing. You’re paying a lease for an area and you’re making an income off that area cause you’ve paid for the resource, and someone comes along and takes that resource away from you. And they think it’s quite acceptable because ‘you weren’t there [yet] so you obviously weren’t going to use it’.

Well no, that’s not true. It’s just there is timing [for moving bees to a new site]. When the bees get shifted onto certain flows, you don’t want to get there at the start of the flow, but you don’t want to get there after the peak.

You want to be there in the ramp up, once about a quarter of the flow has started. And then you leave just after the peak of the flow and go to the next one where it’s just starting to ramp up again.

You don’t want to be there right at the very start because the bees start to starve. Numbers drop and then the flow kicks off and the bees aren’t in the position, you can’t do anything with them”.

Some of the best sites for flowering eucalypts can be found in state forests and national parks. But hiring a site on public land already carries inherent risks for beekeepers. Apiarists can lose these sites at short notice and without compensation. Whereas the fishing industry, for example, will be paid out for lost income when fisheries are shut down, there’s no such support for beekeepers.

“They don’t realise the economic implications of shutting the industry down… at the end of the day, we bring in an awful lot of money, not just from bee products but from agriculture in general… Pollination has to come from bees from somewhere”.

Of course, there is also the risk of losing any of these sites to bush fires. Yet unfortunately, the impact of fire is already being felt in many locations – due to prescribed burning.

“They always seem to burn when the trees are budded up,” Morcom says. “What looked like it was going to be a really good season in some areas, they’ve gone through and done a prescribed burn.

All the buds have fallen off and now the site’s useless for another couple of years. And some of the trees – it could be five years, ten years before that site’s usable again.

It’s a bit of a sore spot for a lot of beekeepers. The industry needs a lobby group and needs to be more cohesive”.

There is also continued logging of native forests across our state, reducing the number of these valuable sites further. Currently, environmental groups are fighting the renewal of the troubled Western Australian Regional Forrest Agreement, which many are calling “a disaster” for forests.

Morcom stresses the issue for commercial beekeepers is the volume of floral resources needed on site to be a viable operation.

“You’re talking a 3k radius of pretty well solid bush to feed a hungry hive and to produce excess honey. The smaller the area, the less excess they get, and then the less hives you’d want [on site] if you want to generate excess.

It depends on how many hives you want to run and where. You know, if you’re going to split them up into 20 hives here, 20 hives there and so on then you could go with less resource [nectar and pollen].

But if you do that you’ve got five sites, 20 hours each, it’s five nights of shifting as well. So, everything’s multiplied. It’s the economies of scale. If you can put them all in one area that makes life easy”.

Read our last post about the fight against the WA RFA and continued logging in Western Australian native forests.

Read about the growing interest in medicinal Jarrah and Marri Honey here.

Commercial Apiary Sites interview Andrew Morcom
Andrew Morcom chats with Ian at the Bee2Bee warehouse.

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