SWARM: Russell Zabel's tetragonula carbonaria or 'sugar bag' bees protect their territory. They don't sting but they swarm anyone who interferes with their hive.
SWARM: Russell Zabel's tetragonula carbonaria or 'sugar bag' bees protect their territory. They don't sting but they swarm anyone who interferes with their hive. Ebony Graveur

Unusual career blooms from Russell's odd obsession

AT JUST 10 years old, Russell discovered not the birds, just the bees.

It was a fascination of bees he uncovered, first interacting with them when his father Stan brought home a beehive in the early 1970s.

"I remember going in the truck with dad to meet a farmer and the farmer said to my dad 'Stan, there's a swarm of bees hanging on a tree up the road',” Russell said.

Inspired by his own father who kept bees, Stan decided to take the bees home.

"So we drove up the road and here is this swarm of honeybees about 10 foot high so dad drove the truck under the branch, got a chaff bag, put it over the bees, cut the branch off and took the bees home,” he said.

Within a few weeks, his father caught a number of swarms of bees.

Watching his father, Russell was fascinated.

"I'd sit outside every day and watch the bees, watching them work,” he said.

"I was just so infatuated, so obsessed with having honeybees that I'd walk around every weekend I had spare looking at the bees and get stung by them.”

Some of Russell's European honeybees recycle the nutrients from native bees' honey that has leaked out of the hive.
Some of Russell's European honeybees recycle the nutrients from native bees' honey that has leaked out of the hive. Ebony Graveur

By the time he was 16, he had 40 honeybee hives of his own and, 50 years later, Russell keeps his own bees at his and his wife's Hatton Vale property.

From the property, the husband and wife duo sell honey, books, provide consultancy, and sell functioning bee colonies to bee-ginners looking to get into backyard beekeeping.

Russell estimates he has upwards of 16 million bees across more than 800 hives comprising of both European honeybees and Australian native bees.

When you've been stung by bees as often as Russell Zabel has, you start to get used to the feeling.

"In the young days, I was rather allergic to them, I'd get big fat eyes and lips,” he said.

"Now I can get 50 or 60 stings a day and there's no effect on me at all.”

Inside the hive of one of Russell's Tetragonula carbonaria or 'sugar bag' colonies.
Inside the hive of one of Russell's Tetragonula carbonaria or 'sugar bag' colonies. Ebony Graveur

While Russell described European honeybees as high maintenance hard work, he said native bees were the "perfect pet”.

"Honeybees are hard work; you need strong muscles and more equipment,” he said.

"Native bees are easy to keep, low-maintenance, great for all age ranges.”

For more information head over to www.zabel.com.au

Russell with one of his native bee hives.
Russell with one of his native bee hives. Ebony Graveur

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