Home & Garden
15 Oct

Hive talking

Words by
Lauren Mitchell
Pictures by
Leon Schoots

Spending time in the sphere of a bee scientist can change the view of your own back yard.

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Had I not met Jody Gerdts a week prior, I would have been mildly panicked by the bee swarm that attached itself to our backyard picnic table; a warm, brown, humming mass hanging right at resident toddler and beagle height. I Googled ‘bee swarm removal’ and up popped ads for pest controllers. But after speaking with Jody, I knew these were no pests, so I texted her. “Awesome,” she wrote back. “The bees have found you!”

Later, when she arrived with her bee box and veiled hat, she spoke about the significance of bees coming into your life. The mythical, spiritual meaning of them. The mysterious happenings that become lore. It seemed at odds with a scientist.

“Humans have been in a relationship with bees for a very, very long time, across cultures and honeybee species,” she says. “There’s this cultural, mythical, spiritual relationship that we’ve created with bees. It’s said once bees come into your life, it’s really good luck, and once you pick up on it you start seeing them and you start to understand the world in a different way.

“It’s been reported, enough to be lore, that when a beekeeper dies, a swarm of bees will show up at their funeral. People see them as spirit guides.”

I ask the question; how does this sit with you as a scientist?

“I think it’s amazing, because I get to work with these creatures every single day,” Jody says. “I work primarily in the biology realm, but knowing that when I’m working with them, I’m also operating in a different sphere.”

Jody is a fourth-generation beekeeper. “Growing up, there was some remnant beekeeping equipment in the attic and in the warm summer I’d smell the wax, so I was familiar with it,” she says of her grandfather’s old belongings.

When she left her Wisconsin home to pursue a science degree in Washington, her dad bought a beekeeping business. “I thought it was just so cool, I‘ve got a science leaning and it was a neat thing my dad and I did together,” Jody says. “So, I timed my trips back to Wisconsin, not around my holidays like most people, but around things like honey extraction.”

Jody was studying her masters degree when colony collapse hit the States, and she began to understand that beekeeping could be much more than “something old guys did”. “I realised there are a lot of women in beekeeping and a lot of research in beekeeping and a lot of interesting things you can do.”

Jody was then eager to finish the research she was doing on freshwater ecology and salmon and ditch the cold mountain streams for warm days in flower fields. Plus, she began working in America’s top bee laboratory at the University of Minnesota. That’s where she met her Australian husband, which is how she landed in Bendigo.

Jody is a specialist in bee diseases, plus queen bee breeding and stock selection to bolster a hive’s ability to stay healthy, despite threats like chalk brood, and inevitably, varroa mite. Australia is the only country free of varroa and its devastating effects, but Jody says it’s only a matter of time before it arrives here, and one of her aims is to prepare the industry to avoid a catastrophic collapse.

“When we selectively breed for certain traits, like stronger immune systems or social immunity, which is something I’ve worked on, all of a sudden we’re part of the evolutionary process of bees. That’s what hooked me in. We can help bees help themselves.”
In Bendigo, Jody began a PhD at La Trobe University around hygienic behaviour and chalk brood. Or, the ability of a hive to detect infected larvae and remove them before the infection can spread. It was believed this trait protected them from the pathogen.
“We found the hygienic behaviour wasn’t protecting the hives from chalk brood,” she says. “So, it was like, that’s not supposed to happen, everywhere in the world reports that hygienic behaviours reduce chalk brood in hives, but no it doesn’t, not in Australia, let’s spend four years trying to figure it out…”

Jody adds while she didn’t solve that exact mystery, she did add valuable research to the knowledge.

She completed her PhD a year ago to then concentrate on running her business, Bee Scientifics, and to enjoy being mum to four-year-old fellow bug lover, Peita. When Bendigo Magazine visits their Ironbark home, Peita is barefoot among the hives, collecting caterpillars in the garden.

“This is Peit’s hive,” Jody says, opening a butter yellow box for us to see inside. “These hives are here because they’re really nice bees.

“Every colony has a different history, a different story, a different way of responding to you, working with their environment and with each other. So, we hand choose different bees for different reasons.” And these ones were chosen for the quiet way they move on the comb, and their gentle hover around a small, curious child.

The sweet by-product of breeding and studying bees, is honey. Jody has been trading her Ironbark backyard product with local cafés for a while, but COVID-19 restrictions were the impetus she needed to go retail, and start peddling deliveries, door-to-door, with Peit in tow on the tag-along.

“I thought, you know what, this is the coolest thing,” Jody says of her idea. “Peit’s been involved with honey sales and stands before, so I thought, let’s hop on a bike, ride around and deliver honey to people in our neighbourhood.

“When the first restrictions came into place, it was such a weird time, and I thought, this is something we can do to add a bit of value to the community. A bit of staying together when we’re so far apart, you know?”

It’s also been a way for Jody to educate her neighbourhood on what she does.

“I want to say, I understand you think of me as a honey producer, and this is where the honey comes from, that weird house with all the bees hanging around it, but what I’m involved with and what we’re doing here is really big. It’s a big picture, cool thing.

“I’ve got a lot of dreams and one of them is to get some strategic partners in Bendigo to help support the honey bee research I’m doing. Bees do really, really well in urban environments because there’s always something blooming and there’s always water. My vision is to have apiaries around Bendigo on a bit of secure parkland, and urban blocks with acreage to be able to keep around 50 hives at each apiary for research. The biggest threat to beekeeping in Australia is the varroa mite, and we don’t have it here.

Everything that I do is focussed on preparing bees and beekeepers for living with varroa. Ultimately, protecting bees from varroa is about protecting our pollination and food security in Australia and keeping our honey and beekeeping practices as chemical-free as possible.

“This stuff isn’t happening anywhere else in Australia. And in Bendigo we’re so well positioned, with La Trobe and regional campus research, to do some pretty significant work.”

Back to grassroots in my back yard, Jody places bee food in her box and gently sweeps the swarm in, being careful not to leave the queen. She thinks they’re wild bees, given their stripes are all different. Which means new genetics to test, and potentially, further discoveries.

At the very least, she’s excited that my family and I have had this unique learning experience.

“The thing is, once you understand what bees need to be healthy, you start approaching your environment in a different way, like reducing your use of chemicals, reducing pesticides, planting more flowers, things like that,” she says. “It’s good for the bees but it’s also good for us, and nature, other pollinators, bats, birds and a lot of our native bees. It’s good. Bees are a gateway to a healthier life.”