Blessed Are The Beekeepers

Robert at Bee Sustainable
Robert at Bee Sustainable

Hello Robert, Are there still spaces available for the Sat 12th October workshop? My friend and I are interested in attending. Best Regards, Sarah Coles

Dear Sarah, The 12th is fully booked but I have made a date of the Sat 26 October. Would this be OK? Regards Robert


October 26 changed my life. The bee keeping workshop brought together the ecological concepts I have been mulling over the last few years and unified them into one simple act- beekeeping. Robert Redpath’s depth and breadth of knowledge about bees is underpinned by good humour and a great knack for storytelling. Grace and I arrived early and he made us cups of tea.

Grace has wanted bees as long as I have known her. Years ago I would often find her laying beside the pond that she had dug ‘for the bees’ exclaiming ‘The Waggle Dance! The Waggle Dance!’ Her excitement entering the shop in East Brunswick last Saturday morning was barely contained. My excitement was initially held in check by a hangover but overtook me after I learned how a bee beard is made.

The first thing I ask Robert is ‘Have you ever had a bee beard?’ He grins, ‘No, but my brother has. He had one for a Big M commercial.’ ‘Do they put stuff on your face in the shape that they want?’ ‘No. What they do is put the Queen in a cage at the throat and the bees surround her.’ Amazing bee fact #1. The first of many.

Robert grew up in the land of milk and honey, ‘My father got obsessed with bees when I was a small child.’ Robert’s father became a honey merchant. Robert was a lecturer at Monash University but seven years ago her took a voluntary separation and 2½ years ago he opened Bee Sustainable. The store shelves are lined with cheese-making supplies, beehives, pickling jars and the best book collection ever- Adam and Annie’s The Weed Forager’s Handbook a notable addition.

Robert is pointing at the frame on the counter, part of a beehive enclosed in glass, containing honeycomb and 1000 to 2000 bees. He passes around a torch and the eight class members use it to spot larvae.

Robert talks about the division of labour amongst the bees- the different duties including cleaning, nursery duties and foraging. He says, ‘A bee can’t manage by itself. The hive is really the organism. They have no individual existence.’ Anti-neoliberalist then, the bee.

‘There can only be one Queen,’ Robert is pointing at a poster of the different bees, drone, worker and Queen. He talks about how five or six of the drones mate with the Queen and then they die and the Queen lives. She lays 800 to 1000 eggs a day and she fertilises them with stored sperm. When Robert mentions, ‘The Royal jelly diet changes the physiology of the Queen so that unlike other bees she can sting without dying’ I am reminded of being a kid and reading Roald Dahl’s story ‘Royal Jelly’. (If you haven’t read that story I suggest you do)

In the two hour workshop Robert somehow covers all the basics of beekeeping. Things you need to know such as what are the triggers for swarming, how many days gestation, what do they eat, where to put your hive, how much honey you’ll likely get. Robert gives a nod to Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, ‘the father of modern beekeeping’, a man who invented a type of hive that meant you could get the honey without destroying the hive. We learn about propolis, the spac fila of the bee kingdom and Robert shows us a skep- that thing Winnie the Poo is always getting into. There are 8 students and we are all enthralled by what Robert is teaching us. My attention is focused the whole time except once when I look at Grace who has accidentally leaned on a vat of Leatherwood honey and is now dripping in honey. The Leatherwood honey is from Tasmania. I bet Grace went home and tried to extract it from her dress for toast.

The highlight of the workshop is Robert’s bee dance. Robert imitates a bee circle- honey source is close and then a figure of eight- honey source is further away- the shake indicates this direction and this far. This bee fact, that the bees can tell each other precisely where to get food is incredible. A circular dance indicates the honey source is within 150 to 200 metres. A figure of eight up to 10km away.

Now Robert is on the ground hammering together a frame out of Ponderosa Pine made in Montana. He instructs us in the building of a single frame that makes up a beehive and we take it in turns to build one out of the pine and wire and sheets of beeswax from Robert’s brother’s factory. When it is my turn I am up myself and think that with my work background it will be a cinch but I mess up the tension of the wire and have to ask Leatherwood (formerly known as Grace) to help me.

At the close of the workshop conversation turns to the effect of neonicotinoids, RoundUp, colony collapse and the verroa mite. One of the participants mentions the doco Vanishing of The Bees and I am reminded of the Honey Bee Blues doco that follows the important work of Australian scientist Dr Denis Anderson. You can watch the full video here

Saturday’s bee workshop hit me with three things, firstly the brilliant logic of the beekeepers and beehive design. Secondly, the wonder of the bees and the hives, the canvas on which they paint. And finally, the passion of Robert, a trait that I have noticed in most beekeepers- an infectious enthusiasm for all things bee.


Bee Sustainable website

Youtube video of Roald Dahl’s Royal Jelly, with introduction by Roald Dahl himself

Wikipedia entry about Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth

Trailer for Ten Canoes- incredible movie about an indigenous tribe featuring a cheeky honey man

Trailer for Vanishing of the Bees

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