Australia finds itself in the middle of a beekeeping golden age, but this prosperous epoch is under threat due to climate change. Melbourne-based beekeeper Honey Fingers’ diverse practice spotlights why fostering the relationship between humans and bees is more important than ever.
The careful balance of our ecosystem is heavily dependent on bees, with an estimated 90% of all flowering plants relying at least partially on animal pollination. Without bees to provide widespread pollination, the world’s biodiversity would become much more fragile. As climate change serves as a major threat to our varied bee populations, apiarists like Nic Dowse, founder of urban beekeeping collective Honey Fingers, are dedicated to the promotion of ‘bee cultures’ – the relationship between humans and bees.
Operating across the gardens and rooftops of Melbourne since 2013, Dowse and his many creative collaborators have established a robust urban beekeeping network that spans small-batch raw honey production, artistic studio projects and a public engagement platform.
An architect by trade, Nic was gifted an introductory beekeeping course in 2011, which kickstarted a deep fascination with the organic designs found within beehives. Encouraged by his tutor, Professor Diego Ramírez-Lovering, Nic combined his newfound passion with his architecture studies and began investigating the natural hexagonal structures produced by honey bee superorganisms.
“Architects are just as interested in a door handle as they are in a door, to the facade of the building and the streetscape to the city grid,” explains Nic. “It took me a couple of years to figure out what Diego was driving at, which was this idea that design operates at various scales – and can actually operate between species.”
The relationship between humans and bees is estimated at more than 9,000 years old, with prehistoric cave paintings in Spain and beeswax fragments on ancient pottery in West Africa highlighting just how long people have been consuming honey. Meanwhile, beehives across the world highlight how the practice of beekeeping intersects with local traditions and religion – a subject explored in a Honey Fingers zine, Beehives.
This mutually beneficial relationship continues to captivate Nic, as he regularly partners with filmmakers, painters, ceramicists, chefs and thinkers to visualise the nature of bee cultures. However, just like the honey collected by Dowse, these projects tend to come about completely organically after a local creative attends a workshop, beekeeping course or lecture.
“Honey Fingers has always been an informal and non-strategic project,” explains Nic. “Oftentimes, people are just interested in beekeeping and then – for whatever reason – some of those people are artists. So, discussions happen where we just end up collaborating.”
One of these projects, What It Is To Be Broken, What It Is To Mend, was produced alongside Mud Australia, a Sydney-based ceramics brand. Using porcelain products that were unintentionally damaged during production, Nic carefully placed these fragments within two hives to explore how bees would use their regenerative powers to alter these foreign objects. But as only one hive went to plan, Nic believes this highlights how every bee colony has its own character.
“I’m not exactly sure why the hive in Fitzroy wanted to build and Hawthorn didn’t, but I put it down to the personality of that particular hive,” says Nic. “The more you beekeep, the more you come to realise that there are as many personalities in bees as there are in humans, dogs or cats – where some are punks and some are cooperative.”
This recent project came several years after Nic first began these creative experiments, with 2015’s Bread + Honey opening his eyes to the idea that urban beekeeping could involve so much more than a delicious product. Alongside Italian visual artist and beekeeper Giorgia Mocilnik, the pair inserted bread into a beehive to explore the architectural resilience of bees alongside their connection to everyday food production.
At times, our sprawling cities can obscure how interconnected we are with the biosphere. For Nic, the process of extracting honey from a beehive is about directly engaging with the network of living things that constantly surround us. From the pollination of flowers to local birdlife that feeds on bees to the geckos that gravitate towards the warmth of a hive, humans are simply one element within an unrelenting natural system.
“When we create artwork, we really aspire to cultivate this feeling within the audience that they are a part of something bigger than themselves,” says Nic. “Bees are so much about that intersection, that overlap between humans and the natural world.”
Alongside these creative projects, Honey Fingers strives to highlight how Australia is home to the world’s most fulfilled bees. As every other continent outside of Antarctica has to deal with Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attacks bee populations, this affliction alone causes countless beekeepers to lose the majority of their bees every season.
“I’ve got friends in Europe who run four or five hives – it wouldn’t be unusual for them to lose every one, every season. I’ve got other friends with 40 or 50 hives, and it’s not unusual for them to lose half over winter because the bees are weakened by the effects of Varroa and other diseases,” explains Nic.
In contrast, Australia’s remote location and strict biosecurity laws have kept the country free from Varroa mite and other harmful threats such as Asian hornets. With none of these issues to worry about, there’s no need to spray beehives with miticides that can negatively impact the bees in other ways. In fact, Australia, to some extent, has the “laziest beekeepers in the world for the best possible reasons,” says Nic.
“We just don’t have all of these problems that other places have…When someone is drizzling honey over their porridge, I encourage them to think – yeah, this is some of the best honey in the world, produced by some of the happiest and healthiest bees.”
Australia’s bee population might not be affected by destructive organisms like other countries, but climate change is already damaging critical insect pollinators. While ordinary generalist honey bees are more adaptable because they can feed on numerous plant sources, native specialist pollinators typically have a specific relationship with a single type of flower or plant. This means catastrophic events like bushfires, floods and extreme heat can wipe out their only source of sustenance.
Recent studies have found that Australia’s 2019–20 bushfires saw 11 species of native bees become endangered or vulnerable, with the resulting loss of interaction having potentially large-scale ramifications throughout the ecosystem. “Even if the insects managed to survive, they don’t have any food to feed on as it’s all been burnt,” explains Nic. “Often when trees and plants are recovering from a fire, they may not flower that year because they save their energy to grow new branches and leaves. Those kinds of impacts are very real and hard on bees.”
As Australia comes to grips with climate change, forward-thinking organisations like Honey Fingers advocate for beekeeping as a window into the natural world. By helping everyday people develop a closer relationship with bees and the organic systems that surround us, even in the densest cities, fostering an eco-conscious mindset becomes a little bit easier.
According to Nic, this commitment can be as simple as stopping to admire the bees at work in your local park, adding a beehive to your backyard or supporting a small-scale producer that maintains their hives with a personal touch.