In August we had the chance to meet Australian beekeepers Nicholas Dowse, also known as Honey Fingers, and Georgah Crane. Nic is an extraordinary beekeeper who looks after our urban beehives in Melbourne and whose efforts we’ve admired for years.
He founded the urban beekeeping collective Honey Fingers over a decade ago, with the goal of producing bee-friendly honey, providing education on beekeeping and collaborating with local artists to explore the relationship between bees and humans.
A special visit to the Mirsalehi Bee Garden
Negar and her dad welcomed Nic and Georgah to the Mirsalehi Bee Garden and spent an afternoon sharing knowledge, exchanging beekeeping tricks and talking about the differences between urban beekeeping and rural beekeeping. We interviewed Nic about his passion for beekeeping, the goals of his platform and the importance of urban beekeeping.
How did you get into beekeeping?
Nic: “In Australia where I grew up, all our neighbors had honey bees and I was fascinated by the whole process. I was also afraid of bees because the first time I got stung I had an allergic reaction for which I had to go to the hospital.
As I became an adult, I was interested in two things: collecting honey and then, when I was studying architecture, the architecture of the honey bee superorganism. I was so obsessed that my family bought me an introductory course to beekeeping, much like you’re offering at Gisou. And from that little thing, Honey Fingers grew. That’s how significant it can be to offer education about beekeeping.”
What do you wish to achieve with your platform?
Nic: “Through the practice of beekeeping I try to inspire people to connect to the beauty of nature all around us and to understand that nature isn’t necessarily something that is far away in the forest, but it could be in your backyard or on your rooftop.
Beekeeping is such a wonderful way to connect to the food chain, and with that comes a greater awareness of things like for example the climate, the environment and use of pesticides and how we have to tread more carefully on this earth to make sure that all the creatures are healthy and happy.
When you open a beehive in the middle of the city and you taste a bit of honey, you become a part of the same food web that the local birds and lizards are a part of, and I think that’s a wonderful feeling. So that’s what we’re trying to do, to inspire people to feel connected to nature.”
Why are bees important to urban areas and cities?
Nic: “This is closely related to the previous question - I think it’s important for people in a city to not only feel connected to nature, but to be conscious of their food, their environment and where their food comes from. Many people might not realize that pollination is such an important part of the favor that bees provide humans in terms of food production. Around seventy percent of the food we eat requires bee pollination.
We work together with a couple of urban gardens where we place beehives to help increase pollination and food yield. It’s all about people becoming aware of the natural world around them and how for example climate change is affecting how we farm. With climate change, it makes it harder to keep bees, and people become more aware of this when they become involved in beekeeping and urban farming.
By talking to people in our urban communities about these issues, they become more aware of where their food comes from, and what a crisis time we’re currently in with climate change and the Varroa mite arriving in Australia. It’s the bees that can teach us through the practice of beekeeping about these big, complex issues.
We’re constantly trying to engage with people, whether it’s in a formal or informal way. Any chance we have we try to get people involved.”
Who or what inspires you as a beekeeper?
Nic: “There are two things that inspire me. The first is the bees themselves, I find them endlessly fascinating. Understanding how bees function is like looking into a little universe, and the more I learn, the more peaceful I become. Bees are endlessly complex and understanding how they work is very calming.
The second thing is meeting other beekeepers and learning from them. Everywhere you go there are slightly different beehives and components, different ways of approaching beekeeping. Those are the two things I love; the bees and the people that look after them.”
What’s the most fascinating thing about bees?
Nic: “I would have to say the collective decisions that bees make within the hive. The queen bee is not telling the bees what to do, all of the worker bees make these little decisions together that create these beautiful complex outcomes.
The most beautiful complex outcome in the beehive that I find so fascinating is the honeycomb. There are four key elements to the bee superorganism: the queen, the workers, the drones and the honeycomb. The honeycomb is often overlooked, but essential. The endless ways the bees arrange honeycomb to raise brood, to store honey, to create little chimneys within the hive to let hot air out or to keep hot hair trapped inside. Without the honeycomb, the hive wouldn’t work.
The hexagonal shape of the honeycomb is also the most efficient way of packing volumes together. It’s just so beautiful. You feel calmer the more you understand you’re connected to something much bigger than yourself.”
What’s your best advice for someone who wants to start beekeeping?
Nic: “I’d say read as much as you can, speak to other beekeepers as much as you can and just go slowly. There’s so much to learn with beekeeping so it’s nice to just start slowly and gently. When you're inspecting bees just take your time to listen, look, smell, learn and just go slowly.
Try to absorb as much knowledge as you can, not just from beekeepers but also from the bees. Once you understand what’s going on inside the beehive you become a better beekeeper because you become more sensitive to what’s going on in the hive.
Taking the time to learn it all is definitely the way to go, and that includes honey. Don’t make honey the first priority. It’s something that comes if you’ve done your job well as a beekeeper and if you have a surplus. You’ve got to be slow about it and let it come with time.”