In Isolation with Nic Dowse

Location: Melbourne, Australia

Last week, on a now rare trip in the car, I took a detour down a quiet, suburban street in North Melbourne where one of my beehives is hosted. This is a special street. It has a broad, four-metre wide nature strip that divides it in two, which is planted with a grove of twenty or so Ironbark trees. 

Ironbarks are a variety of eucalyptus renowned for having dense, hard wood and blood-coloured sap that seeps between the deep furrows of their rough bark. They are also renowned, in this little beekeeping bubble, for producing a monofloral variety of urban honey – something rare in Melbourne. There is an abundance of diverse botanical life in this city and its suburbs, and bees (much like humans who feed on a broad and varied diet) thrive here. This is perhaps counterintuitive: we often don’t see the city as being a place where nature thrives. But bees and many flowering plants in Melbourne do.

The honey from these bees is usually a polyfloral variety, made from the millions of flowers in the city’s urban forests, public parks, gardens and university grounds and, of course, the backyards of avid gardeners. As a result, the nectar that Melbourne bees gather is delicious but tastes like the flowers of an entire suburb rather than one particular floral variety. Fitzroy, Carlton and North Melbourne have seasonal variations but, for someone who knows their honey, it tastes like Melbourne urban honey – floral, medium-bodied, golden, sweet, happy.

Right now, the streets are quiet and empty. I take my time driving alongside the row of Ironbark trees, arm on the car’s window sill, head craned up to look at the foliage. I don’t see what I am looking for in the first few trees I pass. Perhaps it won’t happen this year? Perhaps my dates were wrong? But just as I start to give up hope, there they are. Flowers. Pink flowers on the first tree. White flowers on the next. Red flowers too.

While we are inside anxiously following news reports, or baking sourdough bread, or watching Netflix, or learning new stretches, the bees are working. They are probably enjoying the cleaner air, the unkempt lawns and weeds that have gone to flower, and the general lack of human activity as they quietly forage for fructose and glucose in the city’s flowers. And the trees, with their deep memory and underground network of intelligence spread through networks of roots and mycorrhizal networks of fungi, have probably noticed, in ways we will never quite understand, fewer rumbles in the root zone normally created by traffic; less heavy metal contaminants being pumped into the air from those same vehicles; and perhaps more bird species that, generations ago, were pushed out of their range, but are now returning to take advantage of streets deserted of humans.

The reason this street is so special is that there are so many Ironbark flowers that the bees don’t have to fly far to gather this nectar. This appeals to one of the fundamental rules that bees observe: efficiency. They seek food from the closest source possible. And, because it is mid-autumn and many flowering plant varieties have finished blooming, the honey the bees make is dominated by the nectar of the Ironbark flowers. This is what defines a monofloral honey variety. 

While we are inside anxiously following news reports, or baking sourdough bread, or watching Netflix, or learning new stretches, the bees are working.

Last season the Ironbark honey was a very dark reddish-brown. In the jar, it looked black. It tasted stronger and less sweet than the typical polyfloral varieties. Of the thirty or so hives I manage, in thirteen locations, this is the only black honey the bees produce. 

While we are inside, the bees go on, working hard to produce a surplus of honey that is out there, now, in that hive. And today, in sunny autumnal conditions, I will drive over to the hive and see what they have been doing. Bees are calm in autumn. They have fewer babies to defend. They have plenty of honey. If it has been a good season, there will be more honey in the hive than they need to feed themselves through winter. If that is the case, I will remove eight frames of honeycomb in the top box, and the timber box itself, and reduce the height of the hive from three boxes to two. This will reduce the overall volume of the hive, but leave the bees with two boxes packed with honey. The smaller space will be easier for the bees to keep warm during the cooler months. And the reduction in real estate means that moulds, wax moths and hive beetles will have fewer dark corners to hide in. 

At the end of the job, when the freshly extracted honey is dripping through the filter into the storage tank below, I’ll open the tap, pour off the first jar of the batch, and sample the honey for the first time. There is some cultured butter on the window sill in the sweet spot where, during these cooler days and nights, the butter is never too cold and hard, or too warm and soft. A generous amount of sour butter on good sourdough, some sweet honey to cut through the fats and provide balance, and just two or three granules of rock salt to enhance it all – this is my isolation salute to friends currently in their kitchens sipping wines or coffee and chatting with me on their phones.

Next spring, when the honeybee family needs room to expand, I will put these empty frames, and the box, back on the same hive. The bees will get to work cleaning the honeycomb cells and repairing them, then fill them with brood, pollen, and honey. And we beekeepers will monitor and, if required, guide the process – checking for signs of good health, troublesome diseases and expanding and contracting the hive, as the seasons dictate, to keep the insect superorganism happy and productive.

This seasonal cycle will continue, regardless of the pandemic. It has been this way for millennia. It reminds us that the nature of biology is one of cycles – of life and death, of decline and regeneration, of creative destruction. And, in these strange times, I hold onto that thought.

The honey is black, but the mood is good.

By Nic Dowse