How to turn a rooftop into a productive foodie paradise
Cedar joined Shannon Bennett, one of Australia’s most famous chefs, on his rooftop to harvest honey from his Flow Hive. Rooftops are normally an under-utilised space, however Shannon had vegetables and flowers growing amongst his beehives – perfect for pollination and forage for his bees.
Shannon has about 200 square metres of living roof, mixed with solar panels – the 60cm of living-roof keeping his house cool in summer, and warm in winter. It also collects the water for his fresh water, chemical-free pool – which is then pumped back up and irrigates the garden on the roof.
The pool doubles as a habitat for all sorts of species; from small to medium sized mammals, like coastal Wallabies and Bandicoots, to a massive range of birds – he sees about 20 species of birds throughout the week, such as the iconic Aussie Kookaburra, and different types of Kingfishers – Shannon acknowledges how lucky he is.
The Bandicoots occasionally find their way up to the roof too – they are attracted to the honey, and roots of native plants – they don’t read the sign!
How did you set-up the roof?
Shannon set-up the rooftop garden with flowers first, starting to plant about 12 months prior, and only added the bees 6 months ago.
Before the bees, they had goats on the roof—Shane and Garrett—keeping down the native grass they had planted. Realising there was a more efficient way to utilise the space, they began growing vegetables and flowers – naturally beehives were the next thing to be added.
Shane and Garrett now happily live on the ground level with Shannon’s chickens.
Location of hive – how close can you have them?
The hives are about 20cm from the edge of the roof – perfect jumping spot straight into the pool (Shannon jokes he placed the hive here to stop his kids from jumping in).
Having the hives close means that they are visible from the ground – it’s incredible to be able to see the bees’ different flight patterns from the dinner table; it’s a treat for guests and the family alike.
What does the honey from Shannon Bennett’s rooftop hive taste like?
Tasting the flavour from honey harvested fresh from your own hive is an incredible experience, and a fun guessing game to try to identify the flowers your bees visited – and compare to harvests passed.
Shannon has lavender, flowering thyme, poppies, nasturtiums and native Manuka (also known as Jelly Bush, or leptospermum.)
The Australian Manuka has thixotropic properties, which can be seen as little globules, rather than a consistent stream when harvesting mixed floral honey.
Australian Manuka honey has amazing wound-care due it’s thixotropic property
Shannon describes this harvest as having a really delicate flavour. Cedar’s place is only a few kilometres from Shannon’s home, and yet, the flavours of honey his bees produce are vastly different.
Even within the same hive, honeys stored can vary immensely in flavour and colour.
The current harvest is much more floral, whereas Cedar and Shannon appreciate a jar from a past harvest as being more spicy, lemony and citrusy in flavour. Shannon suggests pairing this honey (spicy, citrusy) with pork and savoury.
Cedar brought some honey he recently harvested from his hives – it’s fun to swap honeys with fellow beekeeper friends. The jar they open reminds Shannon of honey from his childhood – a classic Aussie Eucalypt flavoured honey, like one his family use to get from the local chook farm when he was a kid.
Another jar from Flow team member Bianca’s hive tastes of licorice, fennel and anise-seed.
In the Byron Bay area, much lighter coloured honey is often from the Tuckeroo flower – the frame they’re harvesting from contains what Cedar identifies as a mix between Tuckeroo and Ironbark.
Another frame is much lighter, and tastes incredibly floral, and sweet – like a lolly-shop.
Shannon is hoping to regenerate the forest surrounding his property, and asks about the beneficial aspects of keeping bees. A single, full hive can provide pollination to about 50 million flowers each day – European honey bees are the most efficient pollinators; in Australia, we have the native species too, which do a wonderful job of pollinating, and were here long before European bees.
Is it normal to harvest so much honey with only a 6 month old hive?
Shannon has been lucky to harvest about 12L of honey from two hives in the first season, however there are many factors that go into how much honey you’ll harvest from your hive in it’s first season (or ever).
Can you harvest all year round?
We are very lucky here in northern NSW, Australia, we can harvest all year round, but that's not the case for everybody in the world.
If you keep bees in a colder climate, you may have a long cold winter, perhaps with snow, and there might not even be flowers 6-8 months of the year. In such climates, bees are very acclimatized. After all, they are the European bee, so they are used to that, and that's why they store incredible amounts of honey to survive that time with no flowers.
So, it really depends on where you are in the world. In the coastal regions here in eastern Australia, you can harvest seemingly all year round, which is a blessing for us.
How long does it take to harvest a frame of honey?
About 20 minutes, depending on how much the bees have built out the frames. If you get impatient waiting for the last bit, and the stream has really slowed down, it’s possible to put the honey trough cap back in, and leave the remaining drips for the bees to recycle via the leak-back point.
What happens if you accidentally forget to close the Flow Frame (i.e. leave it open)?
The bees will be unable to use the frame, however Cedar and Stuart designed the key access cover to not be able to be inserted into the Flow Frame unless you’ve reset the frame (i.e. closed the cells).
How do you collect bee pollen?
After the bees do their amazing work of going out to the flowers, they have a static charge and all the pollen grains jump off the flowers onto their hairy body and then they scrape it all back to their hind legs, what we call a pollen baskets. So you see there's red, orange, yellow, blue balls on their legs as they're flying back, and they can take an incredible amount of weight. And when they come back in, if beekeepers are collecting pollen, they'll put a little brush, on, not all of the entrances, because you don't want to rob them of all their pollen, right. They'll just do it on part of the entrance and it'll brush off their legs and that's how they collect these jars that you can purchase pollen from.
Interesting enough, bees don't actually eat pollen – they eat bee bread. They make bee bread by getting those pollen balls of their back legs and shoving them down the cells with their head packing it in there, nice and tight, and then adding their special sauce of their enzymes, topping it with a little bit of honey and letting it ferment
If you ate some of that bee bread, if you ever get a chance to do that in some comb, wow, it's strong. It must be amazingly medicinal because it's very strong, very sour, very sweet, very pollen-y all at once. So it's actually fermented.
Substituting sugar with honey in recipes
Whether you use the same amount, or not depends on the strength of the honey and the viscosity, but you can substitute most recipes with pretty much the identical amount of sugar to honey.Shannon’s tip is to keep things simple.
If you're doing raw recipes, such as maca or protein ball recipes, it's such a simple thing to swap out. If you're doing sponges, it works incredibly well if you're creaming the butter and the honey together. Any recipe that translates the same way, you can do that with honey to sugar. But from a science point of view, yes, there are properties that sugar has that obviously, that honey doesn't have. So it's not as stable, in a lot of pastry recipes. But pretty much every recipe where it calls for creaming butter and sugar, you can replace the sugar with honey.
Honey pairs really well in Asian cuisine – such as in honey chicken.
Particularly, some of the darker honeys that have a lot more acid to them – amazing in savory dishes.
You can also use honey in basting meats, such as any poultry or pork, when you're doing a barbecue. Just get a brush and just a little bit of vinegar—like sherry vinegar—and mixing it with some honey. Warm the honey up to about 35-40 degrees on the stove, just until you get a viscosity where you can brush it really nicely over the top of the meats which have been grilling.
Shannon’s favourite ad libbed smoothie:
Makes 4 servings.
1 cup frozen blueberries
2 frozen bananas
1 cup frozen papaya
1-2tbsp honey (depending on the sweetness of other fruit)
1tbsp Cacao nibs
500ml Almond milk
2tbsp pea protein
Blend ingredients together in a blender. Serve.
Crumbled dessert recipe:
Good for breakfast, lunch or dessert.
Day-old cake, crumbled
Edible flowers and spearmint leaves for garnishing
Spoon 1 heaped tbsp coconut yoghurt per bowls.
Crumble cake over the top.
Top with about ½ tsp honey.
Garnish with spearmint leaves, edible flowers.
Honey pound cake
A great little cake – perfect for the crumbled dessert recipe.
3 cup flour
1 cup honey
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup almond milk
1tsp baking powder
Rind 1 lemon
Preheat oven to 170ºC.
Cream the butter, sugar, and the honey together. Add lemon rind.
Combine all the other ingredients; dry ingredients (flour, baking powder), milk and eggs in.
Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes – test it with a little knife just to make sure it's cooked through.
Your questions answered, so you can get started in this beautiful pursuit of looking after bees and collecting your own honey.
Do the bees stay in the super at nighttime?
They do. It's interesting. We're called beekeepers. We don't actually necessarily keep them. We're not locking gates or anything. They're free to come and go. Once they establish themselves in your hive, they like to stay there, except on rare occasions, when they actually leave, called absconding. Or half of them might leave, and that's called swarming. But they set-up shop there and they'll stay there most of the time. And it's a wonderful thing in a way, we're giving them a home that they appreciate, otherwise they would leave. And we get to share in the spoils of their beautiful honey. So it's quite a good set up.
Shannon’s hive normally shut-up shop and all the activity out the front of the hive stops around 5pm.
However, some bees actually stay out for the night – if you were to move these hives with all the bees at nighttime, the next day you'd get a few bees returning, about a handful. Apparently, they are ones that sometimes spend the night hanging out on the underside of leaves. Couple of bees will stay out, but usually, they all come home to bed.
Why aren’t you wearing any safety protection? How come your bees are so calm?
These are European honeybees, and they do have stingers – so if you are new to beekeeping, do wear a bee suit and gloves, and exercise caution. Both of Cedar and Shannon are comfortable getting stung, and if they do get stung, it’s not the end of the world. But some people have severe allergic reactions. So keep that in mind. It is important to be careful in the beginning. As you get experience as a beekeeper some people even take the hives apart without a bee suit on at all – not that we suggest you doing so!
What happens to the bees when it's raining?
Amazingly, bees seem to fly in reasonable rain. When it's really heavy, they seem to stop, but they can somehow fly through the raindrops. Sometimes, perhaps they get hit by a raindrop and do a bit of a barrel roll in the air and come good. It's quite amazing that they can fly in the rain at all.
I’m new to beekeeping – what's the best way to start?
People will start in all sorts of different ways. What Cedar recommend doing is to add your email to our mailing list on our website – we will send you information on how to get started.
You can contact our customer support team, and we can advise on which hive and equipment is the best for beginners, including everything you need.
We’ve also got thebeekeeper.org – an online course, designed to take you from square one, knowing nothing, all the way through to a deep scientific knowledge of beekeeping, with experts from all around the world contributing to that. So that's a really nice thing to sink your teeth into. Some people like to jump in and do the education first, and other people like to just jump in, hands-on and learn as they go.
So it depends on what type of learner you are, but obviously, you need to get your hive equipment. And once you've got your equipment and you assemble it all together, then you get your bees, you put them in. We've got videos showing you how to do that, and away you go. It's a fascinating learning journey that never gets boring.
Which Flow Hive should I get if I am from a cold region? Will it still work?
In the colder regions, the long cold winters, people routinely go for the larger size we have (7 Frame), which is just one Flow Frame wider and two extra brood frames in the bottom box.
In the bottom box (brood box) is wood and wax – just as the bees have always done in.
Having that slightly bigger box means you've got slightly more stores for that winter ahead. So in those colder regions, you could choose the larger-sized hive.
Cedar: Thank you very much for watching us. It was such a pleasure to come here and see your plants growing on your roof and taste your honey.
Shannon: Well, it's awesome. Thank you. Thank you for providing such an experience for us. I mean it's great educating children with these hives too. They're actually incredible. The small hive beetles are also incredible. My kids were so fascinated by the idea that bees actually have predators, and you can take care of the beetles, in the Flow Hive 2 by just putting oil in the pest tray – the small hive beetles fall into the oil and die, and you catch them in the bottom.