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June 19, 2014

Buzz in the air

A little noticed but essential part of the urban landscape, the bee goes about its very important business of pollinating plants while we give it little thought. Few of us realise that these unobtrusive insects are under extreme threat - but Sandra Ullrich and Linda Walker are here to change that.

  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Brendan Homan

Linda Walker’s original interest in bees was solely as a means of pollination for the ailing pumpkin plant in her organic garden. Now she finds herself, alongside friend Sandra Ullrich, hauling heavy hives onto rooftops and losing control of quad bikes on steep hillsides, all in the name of apiary.

“We’ve done some amazing things,” says Linda. “The quad bike was wonderful – once I got the speed up I was having so much fun!” Sandra felt a little differently about their quad bike journey, which happened as they were populating an Adelaide
Hills farm with bees as part of their business CBD Bees.

“Linda had never ridden a quad bike and she forgot about the brake – that was coming down a 45 degree hill,” says Sandra. “The owner of the property was away for the weekend and I said we’ll be alright to do it without you, then we’re taking the quad bike back down after delivering the hive with no brake control.” She trails off into laughter recalling the memory.

The bees are hard at work even as Sandra and Linda maintain the hive

The bees are hard at work even as Sandra and Linda maintain the hive

It’s been a little over a year since the pair started dabbling in beehives under the CBD Bees moniker. The aim is simple: to increase the urban bee population by installing hives on city rooftops, in city backyards and other unobtrusive city places. The reasons for doing it though, are a little more complex.

“The varroa mite has devastated most of the bee colonies through Europe and it’s actually come into New Zealand now too,” says Linda. “It’s been disastrous there to the extent that there are no wild bee colonies left in New Zealand. It’s that close to us now and very likely to make its way here.”

“The mite is one of the dangers to the bee population,” adds Sandra. “But it’s not the main danger. Pesticides play a big role too, and the genetically modified plants have an effect as well. They genetically modify the seeds, which modifies the pollen and that has a dangerous effect on the bee.

“Our sponsors are pleasantly surprised when they realise they can stand by the hives with their cup of tea and watch the bees come and go without the bees really minding.”

“It’s scary if you think about how a third of what we eat requires pollination by bees – a third of our food, what does that mean in terms of food security?”

CBD Bees has so far found a willing army of suburban residents to home hives in their backyards, but – ironically given the business name – finding places in the city proper has proven more difficult.


Sandra and Linda tend the hive at Christie’s Walk

The Adelaide Zoo was their first taker with hives installed on the roof, and plans are afoot for a glass hive in the education centre. Sturt Street’s environmentally sustainable housing complex Christies Walk has also put its hand up for a rooftop hive, and two North Adelaide residents are hosting as well.

A few other CBD businesses have chosen a sponsorship option, where they pay a yearly maintenance fee for a hive to be installed offsite in an Adelaide Hills location, and receive a portion of that hive’s honey harvest. Linda and Sandra are pushing for more inner city locations, but consistently come up against one major barrier – fear.

“There’s fear and a lack of awareness,” says Sandra. “They don’t understand that bees won’t just come at you. Our sponsors are pleasantly surprised when they realise they can stand by the hives with their cup of tea and watch the bees come and go without the bees really minding.” “All they’re interested in is their hive, their queen and maintaining that. If you don’t mess with that, they’re fine,” says Linda.

By contrast, a similar scheme in Melbourne called City Rooftop Honey has managed to place 70 hives in the CBD with about a dozen located in Federation Square alone.

Honeycomb. Delicious.

Honeycomb. Delicious.

CBD Bees takes full responsibility for maintaining all of the hives they find homes for, and are hopeful that between a partnership with chef Simon Bryant as ambassador and upcoming talks with Government House, Archbishop House and the Adelaide City Council they will secure more sites.


If you find a swarm of bees on your property or nearby, Sandra and Linda recommend checking your local council’s website for a list of community organisations that can come and collect the swarm. They warn that calling in pest control will usually result in the bees being killed.

CityMag visits as Sandra and Linda begin “shutting down” the Christies Walk hive for winter. They are clearly affectionate toward these bees – who were originally rescued as a swarm that had attached themselves to the bottom of a suburban letterbox where they were most unwelcome. Consolidating the hive so there is less empty space and a cosier temperature for the cold months, they chat and laugh to themselves, to CityMag and to the bees.

It might be a hard task at the moment, but its clear that Sandra and Linda aren’t going to give up on Adelaide’s bee population anytime soon.

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