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HomeIssue 3A touch of light: the colony

A touch of light: the colony


Photo © Mike Gillam

In the late 1980s I visited Watarrka in the George Gill Range, a soon to be gazetted National Park, to take photographs for a magazine. While exploring sandstone overhangs, I noticed a huge fan shaped organism – was it fungi?

It seemed to glow from the dark recesses of a vertical crevice above my head. The mystery object in the cliff face was revealed through a telephoto lens: layered lobes of honeycomb forming the nest of introduced European honey bees.

I took some ordinary images and continued with my search for the shade loving Nicotiana (tobacco plant). Over the course of several days I noticed more and more equally inaccessible honeycomb structures until one morning I encountered this magnificent form in a pink and white sandstone gallery.

The overhang was perhaps two metres deep and the ivory coloured honeycombs clung to the smooth ceiling of the rear wall with the ethereal force of some fabulous and other worldly light sculpture.

A screen of Pandorea (spear bush) made photography more intimate than I’d prefer; the best position was directly in front of the nest at just over a metre. The reflected light was quite favourable but I thought I probably needed to use some fill flash as well, hmmmmmm.

I approached with exaggerated slowness to set up a tripod with a camera and 24 mm wide angle lens. The air was sweet with the smell of honey and quite thick with worker bees returning to the hive, the bristles of their hind legs carrying heavy loads of pollen and doubtless stomachs full of nectar.

The overhang resonated with a happy hum; certainly the season was favourable for flowering plants and I’d photographed waterfalls cascading from the sandstone plateau in the previous few weeks.  As I drew closer to the nest structure, my ears came alert to the energy of the bees and I wondered if the flash was a good idea. Movie clichés aside, there was no clear path of retreat, no handy life preserving waterhole to plunge into.

Then, a clumsy metallic scrape with a tripod leg changed everything. The whole hive began to buzz loudly and within seconds a javelin of bees, who knows how many, I’d guess 500 (I might be prone to exaggeration when I’m under duress), swiftly circled me several times at eye level and patrolled the full length of the overhang in all directions. Several bees landed on my head and I cursed my decision to approach the overhang hatless.

One or two became momentarily entangled in my close cropped hair and I remained absolutely still, giving my best impersonation of an ancient Callitris pine, protected by an armour of impenetrable bark. Messages flooded my brain. Do not brush a bee away, definitely don’t kill a bee, do not radiate fear.

Unless you have an allergy to bee stings, a single sting is no cause for concern but then somewhere deep in my imagination, there was this contradictory voice, probably an urban myth carried from childhood: one sting could trigger an apocalypse of stinging bees.

I just know they can smell my sweat and this probably carries messages of fear which can’t be good. I’m riveted by the circling swarm. The whole time the colony hummed and buzzed, like some alien power source from a sci fi movie; certainly louder than a Prius or Tesla.

Then the squadron of defenders abruptly returned to base and the colony was appeased and the angry buzz returned to a non-threatening hum. A single bee landed on my sweating forearm and began doing push-ups. Fascinating; it’s abdomen was pumping up and down as if searching for a suitable site to deliver a sting. Good grief, there’s one in every crowd! I took a chance and gently flicked it away.

The whole interaction probably took less than fifteen seconds and I’m fairly certain I held my breath throughout. Within a few minutes, the composure of the colony settled and I went to work. The bees remained extraordinarily peaceful and after ten minutes or so with tentative mirror slaps, no auto wind or flash, I retreated in absolute silence, very, very slowly.

Naturally occurring honey is relatively rare in Australia. From honey grevilleas and native bees to lerp structures on foliage and the subterranean bounty of honey ants, sources of sweetness are highly prized by Australia’s Aboriginal people.

They collected honey from native bees nesting in the hollows of woodland trees, such as mulga and lancewood, and dug deeply to locate the replete chambers of honey ants. Their organic and sustainable ‘farms’ were less densely ordered and much less ‘productive’ than modern bee keeping enterprises but our first ecologists were feeding their families, not seeking commercial quantities to sell.

While Aboriginal people lacked designer hives, nonetheless their foraging methods often ensured survival of wild colonies that could be revisited time and time again. Given the plight of bee hives world wide, it’s extremely fortunate that we have so many insects from flies to native bees and beetles that, with adequate protection and encouragement, are capable of providing the pollination services so vital to agriculture.

Unfortunately, biodiversity is declining worldwide and insects are under increasing threat as ecosystems fail and degrade in response to climate change, land clearing and pollution.

The European honey bee is many times larger than the stingless native bee that produces the ‘sugar bag’ prized by Aboriginal people however its massive size does prohibit entry to the blooms of many smaller flowers.

Feral bees are a significant problem in the bush, most noticeably in their occupation of hollows in the river red gum forests, hollows that are denied to nesting birds and other wildlife. They also compete directly with a wide range of native insects and birds.

During the recent drought and despite having access to the irrigated gardens of suburbia, the numbers of European honey bees seemed to crash but they are now beginning to recover. This might be a good time to encourage apiarists to remove the remaining feral colonies in the Todd and Charles Rivers.


Recently in this series:

A touch of light: coolamons of chance

For the complete series go to the Features button on the home page menu bar.


Last updated 27 January 2021, 5.00pm


  1. European honeybees are very adaptable and I’ve often observed them, especially during tough times, investigating any blooms (or indeed anything that might look like a flower) they normally would ignore as potential sources of pollen and nectar – Nicotiana, for example.
    Occasionally I’ve observed honeybees gathering pollen from flowering couch grass which is intriguing, as typically grasses are wind pollinated rather than by insects.
    Oddly, a very large tree in my back yard, called Weeping Boer Bean (Schotia brachypetala) – believed to be the only example of its kind in Alice Springs – annually produces an enormous crop of blooms in the late spring / early summer literally dripping with nectar (it makes a hell of a mess) which is extremely popular with crows and spiny-cheeked honeyeaters but is completely ignored by honeybees.
    This behaviour is in stark contrast to elsewhere as I’ve read these trees are regarded as an excellent source of nectar for honeybees, but not here apparently.

  2. A very interesting article Mike. The “Then, a clumsy metallic scrape with a tripod leg changed everything …” paragraph made my spine tingle as I have been in a similar situation.
    Oops moments are what makes us feel alive 🙂

  3. Your fascinating photo rings a bell in the memory files Mike, I have seen the same in a cave but can’t remember where. It must have been old as no insects were to be seen.
    Great article that had me feeling the same ‘tingle’ as “Surprised”.
    Alex’s reply interesting too.
    We have blue-banded bees at our Largs Bay/Adelaide lavender, making me clear spaces in the rather over-mulched front yard, in the vain hope that they might burrow there.


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