InsectsLivestockPlant SystemsWorking Animals

What Happens When We Stop Observing?

You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself. — Samuel Levenson

Front Sign for The Dunoon Honey man

One of my recent experiences has been while beekeeping between Sydney and the PRI’s Zaytuna Farm, in The Channon. Over the last two years, I have learned a great deal from working and living in a Permaculture system but also from the endless advice from experienced beekeepers. One of the more experienced ones, Nevil Watts, lives just up the road from Zaytuna Farm in the township of Dunoon.

Just back in February, Nevil and I took a good deal of honey off the hives in order to have them lighter for transport. The honey was extracted and what was left on the bees would have sufficed until the move, as long as they were going to a good honey flow. When I didn’t make it back to move them, their stores dwindled. Between then and just the last week or so, they have been hammered with about six weeks of rain, which needless to say, didn’t help much.

Truck Loaded at the Channon

I returned last week only to find several of the hives had starved out, and the ones that didn’t were not at all happy about the mess I had put them in. I loaded them up and moved them all back to Sydney to keep a close eye on them and hopefully nurse them back to health. Their next location is a bit closer to Sydney and has budding Tallowood at the moment, among others, which should potentially give them a good boost of pollen to help get through winter.

What I mean by nursing back to health, is giving the bees a supplemental feed of sugar syrup to help them build up strength. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture mentions that two parts sugar and one part water is good for their stores during autumn or winter months and one to one is good for spring to stimulate the hive. It is a normal occurrence and possibly done each year to stimulate production. But, I could never imagine feeding bees sugar or anything artificial prior to this point, for any reason. By being able to observe and let the bees have enough stores, it avoids the need to feed artificially.

Whenever someone asks if I feed my bees sugar, it seems to me to be a complete taboo as far as honey production and beekeeping goes. I think that the idea of exploitative commercial beekeeping and industrial production of a natural element in the system, to the point where the system no longer resembles nature, cannot be justified as ethical. When I speak with commercial beekeepers and those that share the commercial mindset, it seems to them as completely normal to feed bees artificially.

Artificially Feeding the Bees Raw Sugar Syrup

But from this I have learned a valuable lesson, that an outward physical action, by observing, can be seen from two seemingly opposing perspectives — feeding the bees artificially for production or feeding the bees artificially for survival. And to me, this case seemed extremely urgent and even more justified for the survival of the remaining hives than just to get a greater and quicker yield of honey. Similarly, as people who live in an industrial society we may, at some point, have to compromise our values, such as what we choose to consume, in order to get through a situation that is not completely within our control.

The Bees back in Sydney

The flowering events in the area around Zaytuna Farm have been very beneficial for honey and pollen. They range from Tallowood to Macadamia, Bloodwood to annuals, perennials, Madera vine and even Privet. But without observation, thoughtful, ongoing maintenance and an awareness of the surrounding rhythms, the elements in the system suffer.

Honey Label for Zaytuna Farm Honey

The lesson ultimately, for me, was this: that we must never lose hold of our observation. Whether of plants or animals, what we need to do is have a continuum of experiential data and mental notes that we are interacting with. For me to live in Sydney and keep bees 700km away was not only impractical, but also detrimental to the health and prosperity of natural elements within the system. It also was making it quite difficult to observe any of those elements. Animal systems are a bit more dynamic, I would imagine, and require more short-interval system maintenance than say, a food forest. But the results seem to be directly related to the consistency, length and depth of one’s observation of that system.

Over time, we are given many lessons. I hope that we as people are able to stop and reflect along the way, as these lessons are invaluable to our growth and interaction with the world around us.


  1. sympathising with your struggles! beekeeping is tricky, and rolling with the seasons when it comes to bees is not simple… my impression is that this last season in Australia has been quietly disastrous (with exceptions, as always) for many beekeepers… ours were on the edge as well:

    for me, that’s why a natural beekeeping approach is so crucial… to do it well you assume not only responsibility but a partnership with your bees, rather than just expecting them to put up with anything you throw at them… if we want to create a resilient, small-scale beekeeping industry that works long term, i think many things need to be re-thought about how we approach bees… hang in there!

  2. That’s some pretty nifty packing,what a great joy bees bring to the world and their keepers.
    Best Wishes

  3. Thanks Rob! Glad to see you still have time to read them.
    I’m with you on that, Kirsten. Gotta come with some long term thinking or the end result is disaster. Just about sustainable, I had to get the hives closer so I could apply the Warre design hands on…looking to start when it warms up. They’re already starting to build up and will hopefully be on the Tallowood soon. No more fast food! I hope your Warre hives are keeping well over the winter.
    Fernando, I hope that more people are able to enjoy this quiet hobby and help these selfless creatures to provide for the human race.

  4. I guess you could equate emergency feeding in this case with therapeutic antibiotics for organic beef and chicken. Ya’ gotta keep em alive.
    Maybe today’s bees are stressed because the commercial farms are killing off all the native weeds (wildflowers) and there’s little to fall back on when the weather doesn’t cooperate?

  5. Hello, i have a small village in Cambodia which needs to learn about raised bed farming, among other permaculture ideas. could someone please contact me about the permaculture villages – it is what is needed here.

  6. Hey Paul,
    That’s the idea: necessity, not oppressive intervention. It also has to be factored in by the keeper. In a sense we can learn the weather patterns of a locality, not completely, but enough to be cautious when “robbing” the bees of a surplus resource that may be their only resort in difficulty. It helps to be cautious, which I wasn’t enough, in this case.

  7. Hi Muhammad

    I tried responding to this a few days back but it seems to have been lost in the ether. Sorry to hear about your bad season. I picked up a few things from reading your article; I hope you don’t mind me offering some constructive feedback.

    •Feeding bees raw sugar can actually give the bees dysentery. If you need to feed sugar, then use Australian organic white cane sugar.

    •Entrance drip feeders are not ideal for winter feeding – the bees can’t draw down the amount of syrup they need, and the feeders can provoke robbing, particularly at this time of year. A custom rim feeder that sits on top of the hive works much better. Bees can access the syrup inside the hive, and it also acts as an insulating layer in the cooler months (mimicing the thermal dome of honey that usually sits above the broodnest).

    •It would have been a good idea to cover your stickies and spare boxes in transit. This can also cause robbing at any location you stop, which is not only dangerous to the public but can spread foul brood disease spores.

    •It might have been a good idea to leave the colonies in their old location until they recovered – moving bees such a long distance when they are in a high state of stress will only lead to more problems. You are also moving them from a warm climate to a cooler one, which often results in problems with Nosema and general low morale in the hive.

    I’m hoping that you have excellent spring conditions and the bees bounce back – they are remarkably resilient creatures!

    All the best for next season,

    Tim Malfroy

  8. Hi Tim – I just found your message in the spam filter. Every now and again the spam system, which otherwise works very well, blocks a legitimate comment. Apologies for the delay and inconvenience.

  9. Hey Tim,
    Thanks for the feedback. I spoke with Doug Somerville who mentioned that the raw sugar has molasses in it, which can lead to digestive problems such as dysentery. Also, feeding them syrup can give them more work to do then they need and he recommended at this time of year to feed them dry sugar. I don’t think the robbing is as much of an issue because every box has a feeder in front of it. The picture of the truck is deceiving. Before I left, I actually tied a shade cloth over top to keep the bees in, hopefully, and other bees out. But I wanted the picture to show boxes, not a mound on the back of my ute. I think it would have been better to move the boxes on the tea tree on the nearby coast of the Northern Rivers instead of leaving them to starve in the Channon. But it worked out that I brought them back to Sydney. And they are amazingly resilient, thanks for your comments. Hope the honey flows are going well for you out west.

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