SOME flowers, such as the sweet pea, are structured so that only an insect as heavy as a bee can pollinate them. Some, the foxglove, for example, come with showy, speckled markings that guide the bee to their nectar. There is no insect that pollinates more plants than the bee.
Most of us view the bee as something that just appears in our gardens - its pollinating powers a given and the occasional sting to be endured - but the insect is getting an increasingly warm welcome.
European honey bees (Apis mellifera) were introduced to Australia in the 1820s to ensure settlers had honey for themselves and pollinators for their exotic plants.
Catherine Eldridge hasn't always moved in apian circles, but since her sister found a swarm of bees in her back garden in Preston about 18 months ago, she has become increasingly entangled. She now has hives and, on the day I visit, is tracking down a dealer in queens and giving a talk for the Victorian Apiarists' Association. ''It's partly the Zeitgeist,'' she says of her new-found hobby. ''People are worried about colony collapse disorder.''
Fellow bee-keeper Vanessa Kwiatkowski says bees are ''the new chickens''. Two years ago, she and Mat Lumalasi set up Melbourne City Rooftop Honey, which places hives on roofs in and around Melbourne, including 10 atop Federation Square. Many of their hives are now on the roofs of restaurants that use the produce in their kitchens. The Urban Honey Co.'s Lyndon Fenlon does similar work.
Eldridge harvested her first serious batch of honey 12 months after she started out with a second-hand nucleus hive, which is smaller than a standard one (she now has two regular hives on her quarter-acre Brighton block).
While there are many means of pollination - wind, birds, bats, other insects and people - bees will pollinate most fruit and nut trees, vegetables and ornamental flowers. It has been estimated that one-third of what we eat stems from honey bee pollination.
When Eldridge first moved in, she didn't notice any bees outside ''and there should have been bees everywhere''. ''You should have bees in every garden,'' she says. ''There obviously weren't enough hives in this area.''
She put her hives near the vegetable garden, thinking the bees would help pollinate her crops. But they foraged further afield and when she found herself getting stung harvesting lettuce and the like, she moved her vegetables out of her bees' flight path and planted ornamental flowers there instead.
Eldridge, a molecular geneticist by training, has found herself increasingly fascinated by all aspects of bee behaviour. But having been stung eight times - even through her special beekeeping suit - she has come to the conclusion that her swarms are ''not very nice''. ''I've got a queen that produces bees that are cranky.''
Which is how we come to visit Nikolai Faizoulline, a Russian vet who moved to Australia 10 years ago, became an apiarist and is known for the fine quality of the queen bees he breeds - Caucasian, Italian and Carniolan ones.
Faizoulline picks up his bees between thumb and forefinger as casually as if they were pinches of salt. He pats his hand atop a whole swarm of them, and even presses his lips to them.
With the queen responsible for egg-laying and a bee's lifespan being six to eight weeks, there is a relatively fast turnover of genetics and temperament in the colony.
Faizoulline wants to see his Melbourne bees friendly, healthy and ''living in luxury'' with a varied diet stemming from all manner of urban plants.
Eldridge, meanwhile, has decided it's a ''pretty nice'' hobby.