The Bee Doctor

Published 10 February 2021

Dr Cooper Schouten has been fascinated by bees ever since he was a child, convinced he could talk to his tiny insect friends. Fast-forward a couple of decades and that childhood fascination has become a career.

In 2014, during his undergraduate Environmental Science studies, Cooper received a New Colombo Plan scholarship funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to work in rural Timor-Leste. It was during this time he realised that the state of the environment was inherently linked to community welfare and that his love of bees could be used to help both.

Acutely aware that many people in the world don’t have access to choice and that waking up with access to clean water and an education is a privilege not the norm, Cooper set out to work with these communities. He worked closely with social geographer and researcher Associate Professor David Lloyd, and the two have since gone on to work on beekeeping research and development programs throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

While in the rural village of Gleno, Cooper spoke with local honey hunters who described the process of harvesting honey from the tops of giant shade trees, using a burning branch at night.

“These coffee shade trees are over 50 metres tall and it was a bit of a taboo to discuss this because people often fall to their deaths honey hunting, it’s very dangerous,” said Dr Schouten.

“I thought to myself, there has to be a better way of doing this, and ever since I’ve devoted every day to learning about international agricultural development processes and all things bees.”

Cooper came to the conclusion that the best way to get people out of poverty was through agriculture, as the majority of the world’s poor population live in rural areas where they’re heavily dependent on the agricultural sector to service subsistence and export economies.

“Beekeeping is something smallholder famers can do without owning a lot of land. It doesn’t take a lot of time, bees can significantly increase crop yields, and can be a lot of fun. There are numerous value-added products that can be made from beeswax and the development of the honey bee industry can enhance opportunities for income diversification and employment in producing beekeeping inputs such as bee boxes, gloves, veils and queen bees. You can also produce candles, surf wax and zinc, lip balm and soaps from beeswax. Bees don’t negatively impact on the environment like many other forms of agriculture and there really is a lot more to beekeeping than just honey.”

My name's Dr Cooper Schouten and I’m a honeybee researcher at Southern Cross University and I’m also a beekeeper as you can see. I’m passionate about beekeepers because lots of my friends are beekeepers overseas and I’ve been working closely with the Australian Centre for International agricultural research on programs to improve the productivity, profitability and resilience of these rural beekeepers in the Pacific region and particularly in Papua New Guinea and Fiji. There's a whole range of different issues that span from honeybee biosecurity and pests and diseases of honeybees honeybee nutrition so looking at floral calendars and what's in flower because that ultimately meant you know indicates and determines your management practices as a beekeeper and there's also lots of challenges regarding sort of the marketing economics and also trying to make this an inclusive enterprise as well for women in marginalized groups who don't own land.

There's lots of amazing things that beekeeping has to offer in terms of a livelihood opportunity for beekeepers here in Australia and also overseas but it's important that we understand that just like any other type of livestock bees require attention to nutrition and pests and diseases, and the technologies that are available to make it a sustainable and productive enterprise.

So the role of a beekeeper is multiple there's lots of things that you're looking for when you're opening a hive you're looking at how strong the colony is, whether there's any pests and diseases you're looking for they've got pollen they're seeing if they've got nectar and seeing how much of it they have checking whether they need space or whether they need to you know they need more space because they're running out or maybe they need less because it's getting cold and there's not enough food coming in so as a beekeeper you're looking out for these things all the time.

It's not just about honey ultimately if you don't have any bees you're not going to produce any honey you're not going to have any money that's just the story that's how it goes and that actually the first part of that equation is trees – no trees no bees no honey no money but I’ve actually found the queen bee on this one so often when you're looking for the queen bee she should be in the middle of the hive where in the centre of the brood cluster and she's slightly larger than the rest of the other bees just go to a spot where it's kind of like finding a needle in a haystack.

You're actually looking for a movement now that's slightly different to the other bees, rather than the shape in lots of ways. All the other worker bees will actually move out of her way we can see her just moving across the frame there she's sticking her head into a cell.

And she'll lay up to 2,000 eggs a day it's more than her own body weight and lots of people think that the queen is the boss of the hive and that this is a monarchy but it's not true. It's actually one of the most purest forms of a democracy these workers will determine whether she lives or whether she dies when it's time to have a new mom and she's not being productive or looking after them well and they also cast decisions and votes using sounds and noises um bumps and vibrations but ultimately the biggest one is through dancing this is the waggle dance.

They'll communicate a distance relative to the sun when they come out of the hive to indicate the location of those flowering resources or whatever else it might be they might be collecting water if the temperature gets ho. They can they work together to be able to create the best possible solution you know they're always it's very selfless you know if the honeybee gets sick it doesn't hang around you know it's like with coronvirus at the moment you know they're not willing to risk everyone else if they're sick they leave the hive and they go and isolate themselves. Sometimes they don't come back but that's just the way that they do for the greater good of the um the colony.

You can actually pick her up gently you can pick up a queen bee by the thorax.

So I just got a sting in my finger

And that's bee venom and I’m just going to flick that out like that so that's how you get rid of a beesting!

Yeah you got to be willing to get stung as a beekeeper there's no denying that if you buy bees you will get stung but ultimately over time you get used to it it starts to hurt less I’m not thinking about being stung I’m thinking about how healthy my bees are I want to make sure they have enough food and they're not sick so that's more of a priority.

I think also when you start to understand livestock systems you know you and listen to what the bees are saying then you get stung less. I don't bump the hive around I don't open them on a cold day. I don't do it when they're hungry just like me you know if I’m if I’m not eating and it's cold day I'll get pretty cranky too!

So it's just about reading people and reading bees ultimately so for lots of beekeepers they don't wear gloves because they probably feel that if they get stung it's them doing something wrong they haven't listened to the hive or they're pushing it too far but also because it enables you to be much more dexterous if I want to pick up this queen bee I’m not going to be able to do it in a very nice way with gloves on, I’m probably going to hurt her so I don't want to do that. It also means I can clean my hands between hives that means I’ve got a bit of a barrier system between hives because these girls can get sick just like people and we want to try and reduce that pest and disease sort of interaction between the different hives.

After completing his Bachelor of Science with first class honours at Southern Cross, Cooper went on to do a PhD looking at the reasons why international aid and agricultural interventions work, and also why they don’t.

“A lot of the time organisations seeking to help poor people can have a lot of good technical information and the best intensions, but the resources, skills and mechanisms that enable extension services to be accountable and effective for rural farmers aren't always successful,” he said.

Cooper is now the project manager for the University’s Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods research group. He works closely with Australia’s leading international agricultural research organisation the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research to improve the productivity, resilience and profitability for smallholder beekeeping enterprises in Papua New Guinea and Fiji.

“We’re working with local partners on a number of different activities spanning honey bee nutrition and the development of floral calendars, pest and disease management and improving honey bee biosecurity in the pacific, bee breeding and genetics and improving inclusion and gender equity within the honey bee industries,” he said.

“We have strong working relationships with our fellow beekeepers in PNG and Fiji, and more broadly throughout the Pacific region. These partnerships enable us to develop impactful programs that focus on capacity building and identifying solutions to problems that matter to local people.”

Cooper and the Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods group are also working on strengthening honey bee industry value chains, enhancing the effectiveness of beekeeping education and training services, improving beekeeping business approaches and post-harvest handing, quality assurance and marketing.

“The research we do has practical outcomes for rural farmers, so they can make informed decisions about their management practices. These projects also provide amazing opportunities for skills development in beekeeping research and extension while providing information for guiding honey bee biosecurity here in Australia” he said.  

There are a lot of lessons we can learn from bees that we can take into our personal lives in regard to partnership, participation and equality in effective decision making, according to Cooper.

“Contrary to what most people assume, the bee colony isn’t a monarchy ruled by a single queen bee who makes all the decisions. The worker bees actually make the shots through democratic voting and consensus building, and they have lots of different mechanisms of communicating through sounds, vibrations, pheromones and dance. They work together as a team, without a domineering leader, to uncover a diverse set of possible solutions to a problem, they critically appraise these possibilities, and then winnow out all but the best one.”

“I feel so fortunate to be able to put the skills I learnt at Southern Cross to use in a practical way that can be of value to people who are in need. These beekeepers who live in remote and wild places that I work with are some of my best friends, and they have it tough. There are some exciting opportunities in the nexus of international agricultural research to solve problems with local people and I look forward to all the great friendships and adventures to come.” 

Cooper is teaching Introduction to Regenerative Agriculture in 2021 as part of the University's Regenerative Agriculture courses.

Follow Cooper on Twitter

Learn more about research into beekeeping for sustainable livelihoods in the indo-pacific.

Media contact: Media and Content, content@scu.edu.au