From California to the Hunter Valley, with a love of insects and, in particular honey bees. Welcome to the rather unusual world of Elizabeth Frost, whose job is to spread the beekeeping gospel.
Elizabeth’s Frost’s enthusiasm is palpable. “Want to try some,” she asks in her northern Californian accent, as she dips in her forefinger, gives it a quick twist and then sips the golden nectar.
She holds the frame out for me to try.
But there’s a problem. I’m in protective gear – a sort of cross between Ned Kelly and an Ebola nurse. Headgear, netted at the front and zipped at the neck, long-sleeved, white jacket and thick gloves that extend to my elbows.
It’s poor form to get your interviewing journalist stung by bees.
With Elizabeth’s help – a quick unzip here, off with the glove there – I dip my finger into the honey cells, find the gap under my headwear and taste.
It’s not as thick as I would have expected, but deliciously sweet.
“It’s a touch cold today, so the honey’s not as warm and runny as usual,” she says. “A pity.”
We’re in a partly shaded area between trees at the back of Tocal College, where Elizabeth, honey bee development officer with the NSW Department of Industries, is showing me her hives and trying to explain this beekeeping caper.
But first, let’s talk about Elizabeth and her journey from the Bay area of San Francisco – “Silicon Valley, really” – to the Hunter Valley.
“I’ve always been passionate about insects,” the 28-year-old says. “I loved agriculture, and pests and labs – that sort of thing.
“Then when I went to the University of California (Davis) I did some volunteer work in the bee lab and I was hooked. I found honey bees fascinating and the value of pollination is huge to the world.”
After uni she had a job as a travelling beekeeping technician, which meant a lot of long days travelling through Minnesota and North Dakota working with commercial beekeepers, but she hankered for something different.
So here she is.
“It’s temporary, a nine-month contact,” she says. “I’m creating vocational educational tools for beekeepers with Tocal College’s Educational Delivery Team and really enjoying it. Ideally I’d like to stay on.”
So let’s cut to more important matters.
When she goes to a party and tells people her passion is bees, do they look at her like she’s a geek or is she the life of the party?
She chuckles. “I haven’t been asked that before,” she says.
“But overall I’d say it’s positive because everyone has a reaction. Some people are scared of bees, others find it interesting, and some use it to talk about their favourite honey.”
If that question surprised her, the next wouldn’t – but I have to ask.
How many times have you been stung?
There’s a brief pause. “Probably 200 I’d say. At first when I was stung on the finger it was quite painful and my whole hand would swell up, but not any more.
“I guess I’ve desensitised – although not everyone does. It’s important that you get the sting out straight away. It’s barbed and you have to scratch it out – don’t squeeze it, that just squeezes more poison into your system.
“Also it’s true that the bee dies when it stings you, which is pretty sad.”
For someone who has been stung as many times as that, Elizabeth is remarkably gung-ho about the prospect.
While I’m all covered up, she wears no gloves as she inspects the hives – “it’s more tactile without gloves” – pulling out frames of honey.
She notices hive beetles in the frames, which are a native of Africa and were introduced to Australia accidentally, probably in soil.
They are a pest and she starts squashing them individually with her thumb or forefinger – whatever’s closest – at breakneck speed, missing the bees by millimetres.
Her sting count will be 201 before the day’s out at this rate, I think to myself. But, sure enough, she manages.
“So, tell me about bees,” I say in what was
the broadest question I could come up with, informing her that, like most people, my entire knowledge of bees is that they sting, occasionally swarm, produce honey and I now know officially that they die when they sting.
And off she goes, telling me about a social structure that seems to flog the females to death while the boys sit back and watch, how their sex lives would put Hollywood Housewives to shame, what it takes to make a bee happy, and the requirements of good beekeeping.
“There’s 1600 species of native bee in Australia, of which 14 are stingless. The European honey bee (species Apis Millifera to be exact) is not native, but is the one that does that pollinates a vast number of crops, fruits and vegetables, and the lucern that feeds cattle which ends up on your burger.
“They produce more honey and reproduce more readily than others and is overwhelmingly the choice for beekeepers. In spring, one colony can contain up to 50,000 bees.”
There are 3445 beekeepers in NSW and, annually, Australian produces 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes of honey.
I ask if Elizabeth has become a honey snob in her line of work. She pauses a second.
“Well, I always have a stash at home of three or four varieties,” she says.
“I’ll try one, depending on my mood.
“I usually end up buying directly from a beekepeeper or at a farmer’s market.”
I ask her if she has it with toast.
I guess it is like asking a lover of single malt whisky if he has it with coke, or a wine man if he puts ice in his chardonnay.
“No,” she explains. “Just a spoonful, nothing else, although sometimes I’ll make ice cream with it.”
I decide to get her back to bees.
For a happy hive you need warmth, shade and nearby water. As bees are sensitive to temperature, this may entail moving the hive, depending on the season. A hive left exposed to the summer heat – or where food supplies are short – will mean tetchy bees. Sting time.
The queen bee is determined by diet.
“They are fed what’s known as royal jelly – think of it as bee milk. The other females are fed royal jelly to start with, then switched to worker jelly.”
Royal jelly lite, I assume.
The hive might produce more than one queen, but the first queen to emerge will immediately sting and kill the others.
A swarm arises in good times when there’s enough food and water to sustain another hive. In that case a second queen bee will be produced and fly off, taking half the hive with her – a swarm.
Beekeepers need to walk a fine line, leaving enough honey in the hive to sustain it, should hard times occur when food sources are scarce.
At the same time, if they leave too much honey in the hive, bees will take it as a sign that times are good and it will almost invariably lead to a swarm.
Bees won’t leave the hive if the temperature is below 13C or it’s too windy. If it starts raining they will return to the hive.
Whoever their union rep is, he’s good.
Aside from the queen bee, the hive is made up predominantly of females, who are divided into foragers and those who stay in the hive. Foragers fly within a 5 kilometre radius, collecting pollen and nectar – pollen is their first choice because it has a higher sugar content.
Back at the hive they pass it to the worker bee in the hive through what’s known as trophallaxis – the movement of food from one mouth to another. The in-hive workers deposit the nectar in a cell while the forager heads back out.
To ripen honey in the hive, workers will flap their wings to create an air flow, to evaporate the water content in the nectar, making it more viscous.
When the cell is full they will put a cap on it to preserve it.
Voila! A bee production line.
All the time the male bees, the drones (of which there are a few hundred compared to thousands of females), just sit back, are fed by the females, and watch the action. Occasionally they fly off looking for a virgin queen bee to seduce, as you do.
It sounds a cushy job, but there’s a catch. When the male does find a willing queen bee, they mate in mid air, which no doubt brings its own complications.
But here’s the thing.
“The male has what’s known as an endophallus – in layman’s terms, an inverted penis,” Elizabeth explains, scrunching her nose up.
“When they mate, the penis breaks off and is embedded in the queen. The queen then mates with other drones, usually about 12.”
So, what happens to the poor penis-less male who up until five minutes ago was enjoying the life of Riley. Does the old fella grow back, for starters?
“His internal organs are ruptured when the penis breaks and he dies.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is called going out with a bang.