Bees upon the Deck: the first arrival of honey bees to Western Australia

There appears to be doubt over the first arrival of honey bees to Western Australia.  One of the first references to honey bees is in the diary of Captain John Molloy who sailed on the Warrior to Western Australia in 1829-30.  In his diary 1 December 1829 he wrote:

“Had the bees upon the deck.  Inspected them and cleared out the hive and found a great number dead”. 

Another record of honey bees being shipped to Western Australia from England was in Mary Bussell’s diary who arrived in 1834 on the boat James Pattison.  Unfortunately all the bees died before arriving in Perth.  Mary wrote to her mother claiming “the only live things” to have landed are “Foot’s dog and cat”. The first reference to a bee hive being established in the Swan River Colony is in The Inquirer, 11 November 1846.  

“…the persevering patriotism of Lt Helpman, RN after more than one unsuccessful and discouraging attempt, succeeded in establishing at Fremantle, a hive which swarmed on Friday last, and, a new hive being in readiness, the young swarm was carefully secured and will we trust, found their own colonies through Western Australian “saecula saeculorum”. 

It appears Lt Helpman transported these bees into the Swan River Colony on 12 June 1846 or 2 March 1846 from Sydney.  Helpman’s enthusiasm was motivated by Governor Hutt’s offer of a premium to the first person to successfully establish bees in the new colony.  Rob Manning, research scientist at the Department of Agriculture and Food argues that the first landing of bees in the colony was 15 September 1841 when Helpman collected his five pound prize. If you are interested in further information on the history of beekeeping in Western Australia visit the new display “Honey Come Back” in the Battye Library, third floor of the State Library of Western Australia.

3 thoughts on “Bees upon the Deck: the first arrival of honey bees to Western Australia

  1. While in government service Benjamin Helpman made many coastal and overseas voyages in his 115 ton schooner named the Champion. His numerous voyages to Sydney, Launceston and Hobart provided many opportunities to secure some hives of bees from locations where bees were known to be plentiful.

    In fact he made at least four hive procurement voyages between 1841 and 1846. Mishandling of the hives once out of Helpman’s care resulted in the demise of the first three batches of hives. The last hive delivered produced the first swarming event at the Swan River colony in November 1846 at Fremantle.

    The 1841 introduction was sourced from Launceston in Van Diemen’s Land; in 1843 three hives were procured from Sydney; the Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal for 13 April 1844 stated “Three experiments have been made to naturalize the honey-bee, as yet not very successfully. Lieut. Helpman, R.N., the Commander of the Champion, has always paid the greatest attention to the preservation and safe landing of the various specimens committed to his care, but unfortunately the chief casualties have occurred between Fremantle and Perth, subsequently to their delivery.”

    Bees were well established in Fremantle by 1849. The Perth Gazette for 17 March 1849 reported this interesting incident: “On the last trip of the Typo when she was about 35 miles from that place, and 15 from the land, at night a smart thunder storm came on, during which a strange buzzing noise was heard at the mast head, and on one of the men going up to ascertain the cause, he was assailed by a number of bees, a swarm of which was clustered there; the bees shortly afterwards left the vessel, during a shower of rain; on the vessel’s return to Fremantle it was ascertained that the day before her departure one of the hives belonging to Mr. Welch had swarmed and the young bees could not be found; they were no doubt the same which took possession of the mast head, where they remained unnoticed.”

    Source: The Immigrant Bees, Vol. IV by Peter Barrett)

  2. I’ve located another instance of bees being carried aboard the James Pattison, the same voyage which carried Mary Bussell and James Stirling to Swan River. This hive must have been carried close to the helm for the bees escaped, stung the man at the wheel and flew away, never to be seen again. This incident was recorded in the diary of midshipman John Kirby, then aged 14, a midshipman, his first voyage. “My first duty was to take tally of the goods as they were struck down into the hold and a most miscellaneous cargo it was.” This story will be documented in The Immigrant Bees, Vol.5

    Regards, Peter

  3. My Vol.5 of The Immigrant Bees was completed early in 2014. Towards the end of this year PDF copies will be made available to Australian State Libraries. Peter Barrett, Caloundra, QLD. August 2014

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