Vicky Brown: How can we support urban beekeeping?

Vicky Brown: How can we support urban beekeeping?

Vicky Brown: How can we support urban beekeeping?

Vicky Brown: How can we support urban beekeeping?

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal and Bidjigal Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

Vicky Brown is the co-founder of The Urban Beehive, a renowned urban honey supplier. Vicky manages 76 beehives throughout the city—on rooftops, in parks and gardens, and in coastal reserves. She and her co-founder Doug Purdie also teach beekeeping and run The Urban Beehive supply shop in Matraville.

In this interview, we speak to Vicky about the vital role of bees in pollination and food production. She also shares how she grew in her 25 years of beekeeping journey, and how we can help to support urban beekeeping.

Why are bees important?

Bees are an essential insect for pollination. European honeybees are really important, but they’re not the only ones. In the Sydney area, we’re really lucky to have Tetragonula, which is a native species, as well as the blue-banded bee and the teddy bear bee. We used to say there were around 1500 species of native bees in Australia, but now estimates have gone up to 2000!

These bees are all amazing pollinators, along with species such as moths and flies. They're such an important part of the ecosystem. Without bees, we wouldn't have the food that we eat. Our diets would be really boring, just a lot of wind-pollinated grains and root vegetables. And there's still so much we can learn from them.

Can you tell us about your beekeeping journey and the evolution of The Urban Beehive?

I've been beekeeping for over 25 years. My own journey with beekeeping started on Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of South Australia. I was in my early 20s and I just loved it. I remember the first time I opened up the beehive and saw the queen and the workers. They live in a society like we do, but there's no bee that strikes out on its own. Everything they do is to help out the other bees. When I realised that their community doesn't rely on ego and that they're all just in it for each other, it was a revelation. 

When I moved to Sydney, though, nobody was really into it. There wasn't a big Save the Bees campaign going on. And when I told people that I was a beekeeper, it really wasn't welcomed as much as it is now. I took a variety of jobs, but I really missed beekeeping. 

I ended up joining a beekeeping club in Sutherland. And that's where I met my business partner, Doug Purdie. We were both interested in starting up a small beekeeping business, and we said, well, instead of being competitors, why don’t we work together? We both brought different things to the business and we've been working together now for 13 years. 

It was just a small company at the start, with a couple of beehives and community gardens. We were bottling honey at the kitchen table and adding little handmade labels. Now that it's grown, we're both working full time and we’ve got lots of restaurants, bakeries and retail stores across Sydney on board. 

Our factory is in Matraville now. The honey is stored in a 40-foot container. And in our shop on the other side, we sell honey and beekeeping gear. 

Everything grew organically. We didn't come into the business with a lot of capital or grand designs, things just built on top of each other. I'm very proud of what Doug and I have put into the business and what it's given back to us.

How do you collaborate with the local community? 

I manage about 76 beehives for businesses around Sydney. I also mentor people with their own hives. The total number of hives fluctuates, but I try to keep it to around 100.

Most of the hives are close to the city. We’ve got hives in the Royal Botanic Garden and Centennial Park. We also work with Carriageworks and Museums of History NSW, and businesses like David Jones and Canva. It’s great to have these organisations as part of our hive network. 

I check the beehives every three weeks, and document everything in a records management system. It’s a cycle of inspections – when you get to the last hive, you go back and start again. During the winter, when the bees aren't producing a lot of honey, I focus on things around the factory. 

All the honey comes back to the factory for processing. Once that’s done, we bottle it up and deliver it to our network partners. The whole process is a beautiful cycle. 

What are the keys to success for The Urban Beehive?

Number one is that it’s run by beekeepers. A lot of people come to us for advice, and we always offer that. I had a few people come into the shop today, not necessarily wanting to buy anything, but just to chat about their bees going into winter. 

Community support and engagement is also really important. Doug is the president of the Sydney Bee Club, which we established when we first started beekeeping here. There wasn't anything else like it then. We also started a Sydney branch for Amateur Beekeepers Australia because there was such an interest in beekeeping and for people to meet. 

When you really believe in something, you try really hard to make it work. People weren't really into bees when I first got here. Now there's so much more awareness around the world. People don't just see bees as stinging insects or as an insect that produces honey. They see them as something that's a really important part of the environment. 

What environmental challenges are you facing as a beekeeper?

One of the biggest challenges is development. Some sites where we’ve had beehives before have been developed. Now the apiary can no longer exist. At the moment we have the Qantas apiary on a beautiful street lined with paperbarks. But that’s earmarked by the government for a highway. 

Every time there’s a development and trees disappear, my harvests decrease. I only take surplus honey, to make sure the bees have honey for themselves. When I first established The Urban Beehive, I was getting three to four harvests a year. With the loss of large flowering trees I'm down to two or three harvests a year. 

I’ve also noticed changes in flowering. The trees used to flower in the first week of September, which was the beginning of spring. But with climate change, the seasons are changing. It’s getting harder to predict when plants are going to flower and produce nectar for the bees. 

During the bushfires, my hives were protected to some extent, being up on rooftops in the city. But they were affected by the smoke like everybody was. I did lose some honey that year, but I know many beekeepers who lost all their hives. My mentor on Kangaroo Island, Peter Davis, lost everything. I had four beehives out at Mount Tomah, but luckily they were next to a historical house in the botanic gardens and were protected. If the fire service hadn’t been there protecting the house, the hives would have burnt.

I'm so lucky as a beekeeper in the city that my bees are protected from things like fires and floods. But there are also threats like the Varroa mite, a parasite of honeybees. It was first detected in Australia in June 2022 and has affected beekeepers in Newcastle and the Hunter area. Their beehives had to be destroyed. The mite hasn't broken out of the containment zone yet, but if it does we could lose most of the beehives in Australia.  

How can we support beekeeping and urban food production? 

We can all play a role in conservation. The plants that we're putting in don’t just feed ourselves, they support a whole range of pollinators and other animals in our environment. 

Around the world, creating green spaces within urban settings is becoming a requirement. It would be fantastic if we had that here. Rooftop gardens and community gardens can supply us with herbs, fruit and vegetables. They also create food corridors for bees and other animals. 

Another way you can support is by supporting local beekeepers. Sydney is expensive! You've got to work really hard to make it as a small business, and the overheads of working in a major city make things a lot harder. 

Bees give back so much to the environment. Our sweet payoff as keepers is the honey – and their company! Having native bees choose to live in your garden is really beautiful too.

I love harvesting the honey, but we don’t need to take everything from them. My main priority is the health of the beehive and knowing that they're going to survive each season. That’s my main role as a beekeeper: to keep healthy beehives. 

Learn more
theurbanbeehive.com.au
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This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at: reco.net.au/circular-sydney

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Author

Interviewed by Danling Xiao. Edited by Lucy Campbell.

Lucy Campbell is a writer and editor with a long-standing interest in and commitment to science and sustainability. Solicitude and solastalgia motivate her to preserve precious resources and promote positive change. Connect with Lucy on Linkedin.

Danling is the co-founder of ReCo and creative director of reco.digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin

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