Although there were earlier attempts to import European honey bees to Australia, most sources agree that the first successful introduction was in 1822. The Isabella was a merchant ship transporting convicts from England and the captain, John Wallis, brought seven hives to Sydney on the ship’s second voyage. The hives were auctioned the following week.
Blue Mountains beekeeper Peter Barrett has published a detailed account of sources attesting to Wallis’s importation of bees and their subsequent history. He raises some doubts about the eventual success of Wallis’s hives, with some accounts suggesting that the bees eventually left the hives for “the woods”.
Evidently, further hives were imported in 1824 aboard the Phoenix. However, a report in Loudon’s Gardener’s Magazine, quoted by Barrett, suggests the Sydney imports soon absconded to the bush. This account attributes the first successful importation of European honey bees to Dr Braidwood Wilson of Hobart Town. It reads:
The European Bee has been oftener than once introduced to Sydney, but without success; the swarms having always left the hives for the woods.
There is a government garden at Hobart Town, under the care of our correspondent Mr. Davidson… the latest account which we have had from this quarter relate to the European honey bee…A hive was carried to Van Dieman’s Land, in the autumn of the year 1830, by Dr, T. B. Wilson, at the suggestion of his friend Mr. R. Gunter of Earl’s Court, brought from London in a wire case. It arrived safely, and the bees swarmed several times the first year; and in the True Colonist (a Hobart Town newspaper) of February 14th 1835, it is stated that a hive descended from Dr. Wilson’s, belonging to a gentleman in the neighbourhood of Hobart Town, had already swarmed eighteen times.
Dr Wilson’s bees were imported aboard a ship called the John, and other accounts have it arriving in Hobart in 1831. Hives of bees descended from Wilson’s imports were later shipped to Sydney. Other varieties of European bees were later shipped to Australia, including the Ligurian bee. A pure-bred strain of this bee still exists on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, which was declared a bee sanctuary in 1885.
By 1845, at least one New South Wales bee-keeper was exporting honey to Britain. Mr E. P. Capper of Maitland sent 7 cwt (around 355kg) of honey to England in six small barrels. The honey and the beeswax Capper also sent were successfully sold. Reporting the sale, the Maitland Mercury recommended honey production as a good earner for small farmers. Later, large commercial concerns became involved in the honey industry, with the Barnes brand tracing its history back to 1876. Australia’s largest commercial honey firm, Capilano, was founded in 1953.
Before the introduction of European honey bees, Indigenous people had long been harvesting sugarbag honey from native Australian bees. The native bees are stingless and there is a growing interest in their honey. Feral swarms of European bees have become a pest in some regions of Australia, competing for tree hollows used by native birds and animals as nesting places.
The Bee Congress Times of June 1922 has an account of the introduction of honey bees to the various Australian states.