PARLIAMENT House’s voluntary head beekeeper Cormac Farrell has become quite attached to the parliament bees, and at times says they become quite attached to him!
He manages two native beehives and six honeybee hives as part of his role at Parliament House (and many more around the ACT), but, with growing interest in hobby backyard beekeeping, the 46-year-old environmental specialist urges people to think about keeping native Australian bees.
He worries about endangered native bee species, with some, such as the Metallic Green Carpenter Bee, at risk of being lost.
“When you lose the bee, you can sometimes lose all the plants that they were pollinating, because the plants were reliant on it in order to breed, if you lose the bee, then the plant will also be lost.”
There are about 2000 species of native bees in Australia, with 30 just in Canberra, says Cormac, of Evatt.
The native bees at Parliament House are not actually ACT locals, though.
Home to the Gold Coast, these stingless bees called Tetragonula carbonaria, which are also known as sugar-bag bees and occasionally bush bees, have been part of a trial here.
“[They’re] not endangered in Australia, but they are experiencing declines in some parts of their home ranges,” Cormac says.
“What Parliament House has been doing is trialling how well they migrate.”
They’re not adapted to handle the cold, so get transported to Sydney over the winter, and on the other end, high temperatures of more than 42C can be fatal for these native bees, too, he says.
The colonies are kept happy in custom-built “Hive Havens”, heavily-insulated beehives, one located in a staff courtyard, the other in a courtyard where dignitaries and VIPs are entertained and, after three years, Cormac can say the trial has been a success.
Cormac got the role of head beekeeper as part of a joint venture between the Department of Parliamentary Services and an engineering firm called Aurecon, where he used to work.
“I was in charge of the office hives [at Aurecon] and we needed to move them,” he says.
“We were moving buildings and the new building didn’t have any safe roof access.
“At the same time the ANU Agriculture Society, the beekeeping club at ANU, also needed to move their hives.
“We were casting around and Parliament had just released a report on biosecurity in the beekeeping industry so we thought they might be interested. We talked to them, they were interested, and away we went.
“I was the head beekeeper of the source hives, so by virtue, I became the head beekeeper for Parliament, which, to this day has been a wonderful and strange side project.”
Cormac’s day job now is as an environmental specialist and bushfire protection specialist at Umwelt, so beekeeping is a bit of fun outside of what can be a stressful, high-pressure career.
His passion for bees started with a love for the outdoors, spending most of his childhood tramping around the local Canberra “hills”.
“Botany is my main discipline and that’s always been a main interest of mine,” he says.
“My original passion for bees was mostly, not around honeybees, it was around native bees and their role as pollinators.”
For humans, Cormac says pollinating is really important, especially when it comes to hay fever, which is from weak pollinated plants.
“Because [plants are] throwing their pollen into the air to try and make its way to another plant, they have to throw huge amounts of pollen into the air, which is where your hay fever comes from most of the time,” he says.
“When it’s bee pollinated, the bee is picking up the pollen and delivering it as a specialised package exactly to the other flower. It’s much more efficient and much more effective.
“That’s why pollination is the main value of bees in Australia, not honey.”
The honey isn’t even really for humans, says Cormac, who explains that the bees consume the honey to stay alive – “we only take the surplus”.
Last year, for example, there wasn’t a surplus of honey in the Parliament hives because the smoke-affected bees needed all the honey to survive.
“The smoke affected them quite badly by killing the foragers. They would go out into the smoke but wouldn’t come back, so they were losing their workforce at quite a high rate,” he says.
“The colonies can make more workers but they chew through their honey resource doing that. So we didn’t take any honey off them.”
Usually Cormac would get about 20-30 kilograms of surplus honey from the European honeybees, and a lot less from the native bees – about half a kilo to one kilo a year.
Cormac describes the Tetragonula carbonaria’s honey as tasting “tangy”, like honey mixed with passionfruit pulp.
“What’s unique about them is their honey is antibacterial and was used by indigneous people as a topical antibiotic or to heal wounds,” he says.
“Even though they produce a very small amount they were really important in indigenous culture because they were the first large scale societies to have access to antibiotics.
“The first settlers often commented on how the indigenous people seemed to be able to heal injuries that would have killed the Europeans. They would see the scars and they would go: ‘How did that person survive that?’ And it’s because they had antibiotics.”