Honey in Australia: Looking out for the little guy...

Honey in Australia: Looking out for the little guys

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Bees are crawling over a piece of golden orange honeycomb

Honey is the sweet unsung hero of many a cup of tea or piece of toast in the morning. Although it is a common pantry item for many households and bakeries, there’s far more to its production than we understand, which begs the question: how conscious should we be of where we source our honey?

You’ve probably heard some conversation with phrases sounding like, “blah blah blah, bees… at an alarming rate” which raises some very mild concern from listeners who then very quickly move the conversation along. Bees make up a crucial part of the ecosystem. They play a huge role in helping the growth of the produce that you use day to day. Fruits, vegetables and other flowering plants struggle to grow without the assistance of bees.

These underappreciated hard workers tirelessly pollinate the plants of your favourite fruits, vegetables and other plant matter. Their decimation means a break in the food growth and production cycle. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the decline in bee populations due to a number of factors, namely pesticides, loss of habitat and climate change. Pesticides weaken bees making them more prone to disease and climate change creates disruptions in the timelines of bee’s hibernation and flowers bloom, which means bees and flowers are just missing one another causing all kinds of disruptions.

While this is already affecting bees, it sadly isn’t over for them yet. For bees in Australia the detection of Varroa Mite in 2022 posed a threat for bee colonies across the country. Fortunately, a move was made to begin to eradicate the mite in September 2023 to help alleviate stress on bee colonies, but it is still very much a danger.

Varroa Mites feed on bees’ bodies depleting their energy which eventually kills them. An outbreak in a colony can mean its collapse. The mites are relatively large compared to the bee’s body which means they feed quickly—imagine a parasite the size of a rabbit latching onto a human and feeding. They also reproduce and feed on the bee larvae which stops the colonies growth before it can even grow. Regular monitoring by beekeepers is the best way to keep the mites at bay before they get too out of hand and destroy a colony.

Honeycomb sits on a plate while a jar of honey has a wooden spoon dipped into it.

Different forms of honey.
Image: shutterstock

Commercial beekeeping

It isn’t just natural threats that bees face, but the decrease in commercial beekeeping has also had an impact on numbers. With the rising cost of equipment, low cost of honey and the under-appreciation of pollination efforts, commercial beekeeping is on the decline.

While it all may seem like doom and gloom, a rise in smaller, local honey production in Australia is a beacon of hope for the fuzzy little workers. We know from the Australian Honeybee Industry Council (AHBIC, the national representative body for the honeybee industry) that there are 46,000 recreational and 1,800 commercial beekeepers in Australia, managing 855,000 colonies of bees, producing on average 20,000 tonnes of honey per year. Bees impact on food security is vital to not only the beekeeping industry but the agricultural industry, fruit and vegetable farming industry and other wider areas.

Bee One Third are honey producers with hives along the Eastern Coast of Australia—from the Sunshine Coast to Port Macquarie. They deliver products like bee pollen, honey and honeycomb with a mission to help reconnect consumers to the importance of the production process and of bees as pollinators and producers. Bee One Third’s Quality Assurance Manager, Dr Kathy Knox is an amateur beekeeper and president of the Gold Coast Amateur Beekeepers Society. With an extensive background in beekeeping and knowledge about bees, Dr Knox highlights the significance choosing local honey producers as suppliers has for bees and the community.

“If we think about locally sourced food, its produced nearer to where its consumed meaning lower costs in transportation and storage,” Dr Knox says.

“Consumer interest in locally sourced food is good for growers in the community in an economic sense. Eating locally sourced foods is probably also good for the consumer too.”

Local beekeepers

Choosing to use products from local producers means a boost for the local economy—like a positive feedback system from producer to bakery and back into the community. The lower costs of transportation and storage is also a benefit that can be an indicator to go locally sourced for your honey.

Choosing a local producer may also mean a product with fewer preservatives or synthetic materials in the honey. There have been multiple instances of companies being caught out for selling products labelled as ‘honey’ that in fact were not pure honey. An earlier example was in 2014 when the ACCC fined two companies for selling products labelled as ‘honey’ that were in fact Turkish Sugar Syrup.

Since these incidents new testing has been introduced to find out these frauds and help the real, pure honey make it to the shelves. Locally produced honey eliminated many of these issues being that it is produced on a smaller scale which helps reduce the need to add these preservatives for in honey produced en mass.

“Closer distances [to producers] mean less time involved, so food might be fresher and require less preservation or treatment, possibly resulting in better flavour or higher nutrient value compared to food that has travelled a long way or that has been stored over time,” Dr Knox said.

“Supporting local producers in your area would help your local growers to continue to operate in the face of rising production costs. Short term, you can support your neighbourhood beekeepers by purchasing local honey and that will enable them to keep managing their bees and looking after their colonies’ health.”

The long-term effects of supporting local beekeepers and honey producers are difficult to say given that bee colonies face many threats. However, the short-term effects can have a positive impact and continued growth could create a lasting impact for both bees and local producers—it’s a win-win for our smallest workers and larger, more human sized producers.

Native bees

Australian native bee sits on a purple rosemary flower

Australian native bee
Image: shutterstock

Australian stingless bees – or native bees as they’re often known as – are commonly overlooked when it comes to honey production. However, that shouldn’t be the case.

According to bee researcher Tobias Smith, there are about 600 species of stingless bees globally, and 11 in Australia. These are the tetragonula bees on the coast, and the inland austroplebeia,” he told

They’re found in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of Australia, from New South Wales to Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and these bees produce a unique type of honey called sugarbag.

Dr Smith said it was difficult to describe the taste of sugarbag honey, as it can vary widely.

“I would say no two hives are exactly the same, but it’s always fantastic,” he said

“Tetragonula bees, which are more coastal, store their honey in pots made of wax and resin, so you get the flavour of the resin… which is often a sharp citrus, tangy flavour.

“The austroplebeia bees make their honey pots more out of wax, which doesn’t have a strong flavour, and their honey tastes more like the European honeybee.”

It’s also been discovered the honey contains medicinal, strong anti-microbial qualities, similar to that of manuka honey.

However, there are a number of factors to consider before bringing in sugarbag honey, including the face that native bees only produce about 1 litre of honey each year, and taking honey from a native hive often means the entire colony is destroyed.

Head to the roof

For bakeries that want to look a little closer to home when it comes to honey production, the popularity of rooftop beehives has been on the rise for the past few years.

Established in 2010 by beekeepers Vicky Brown and Doug Purdie, Sydney-based The Urban Beehive has more than 100 hives located throughout the city.

The businesses The Urban Beehive works with ranges from David Jones to the trendy Carriageworks, as well as on the rooftop of Bourke Street Bakery’s Banksmeadow premises.

Bourke Street Bakery co-founder David McGuiness said it was a move he highly recommended.

“The hives produce an abundance of delicious honey, which we sell in our bakeries,” he said.

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