Bees over ‘beefies’

In late August of 2016, Richard and I bought some bees. At the beginning of the month I had gone on a cyclonic trip through the ins and outs of working with a hive. Called The Practical Beekeeping Course, it was a two-day immersive education in working a hive. When I got home each day around 8 pm, Richard and I would go over the notes, read some more and Google anything we had contradictory information on. Which, incidentally was most information. There’s a saying, ‘Ask three beekeepers a question and you’ll get three different answers.’ After a couple of weeks of cramming in as much information as possible, one Friday night we drove to pick up ten nuclei. Just like that, we were in sole charge of an entire apiary. A veteran beekeeper said we were mad. We agreed.

We got back to the farm just on dark and walked the bees down to their new home. The weekend prior, we had placed two recycled wooden pallets in a corner of a paddock next to one of the wetlands. These are to help with levelling the hives and to give the bees space from the pasture so they are easily able to fly in and out. Between us we had waxed a total of 500 frames  to go in the ten hive boxes. Frames provide structure to the hive, and they’re where the queen lays her eggs, or where nectar or pollen is stored. The hives are made from a heat-treated wood, and we painted it a water-based off-white to give added protection from the elements. We left the bees in their ‘nuc boxes’ (temporary transit homes) to get their bearings overnight, and in the morning we delicately put them in their new digs.

We placed the hives facing north (for the morning sun), nestled next to native flower-producing trees and shrubs, in a paddock of well-established pasture. Depending on the weather and the season, bees can collect from any number of nectar or pollen sources in pasture and wetland. Mānuka, kānuka, harakeke, tī kōuka, rewarewa, white and red clover, buttercup, dandelion, chicory, plantain, birdsfoot trefoil and self-heal, as well as the occasional gorse bush, ragwort and thistle, are great pollen and nectar sources.

When we retired our beef animals from our marginal land the previous year, we knew bees would be much better suited to the steep slopes. They would not only supply us with their keenly local blend of honey, but also pollinate the wetlands and help restore their productive value. Introducing bees made environmental good sense, and their additional economic value gave the project the green light.

The first season was a steep learning curve and culminated on a blazingly hot, dry day in March. The day started with putting escape boards on the hives, enabling the bees to naturally leave the honey boxes without our assistance. The next day, we took the hive’s honey boxes off, and in doing so removed approximately a third of the honey. We decided early on that we only wanted to take as much as was polite. After all, a worker bee only makes an average of one and a half teaspoons of honey in her lifetime. From our ten nuclei, we managed to harvest around 60 litres of honey. Research tells us that honey’s mānuka content increases over time, and so for our first, special harvest, we’ve left our honey to age for almost a year, allowing the active mānuka ingredients to only get better.

Since early April, we have been ‘wintering the hives down’, which means reducing the boxes to keep them as warm as possible over the cooler months. In spring, we made so-called ‘splits’ from the hives, to increase the size of the apiary. The practice of splitting is rather like cell division: you typically separate the hive in two to make two hives. This reduces the likelihood of the hive ‘swarming’, or flying away due to the hive being too small for the number of bees in the colony.

We also treated for Varroa mites using the same philosophy we have with the cows – which is to say, by using organic treatments. When tasks piled up and we weren’t able to come down that week, the family helped us tend to the bees. This was especially useful when we entered ‘swarm season’.

During the first week of January we picked up five more nuclei from a local beekeeper for a new apiary. We decided to paint the hives a different colour, a water-based Beryl Green, to distinguish between the two sites. Now, over two months in, the bees are content with their spot in the world and have been assiduously working hard to build up the hive and its honey stores.

The honey is just one of the benefits of beekeeping; the bees also help to pollinate our trees and our pasture, creating a richer, more abundant and productive farm for all that live their lives on it. It’s not a huge leap to say there’s a co-dependence and correspondence between the bees, the pasture, the cows, the wetlands and their fauna, and us. Introducing the bees has made our marginal land more meaningful. It’s also given us a very hands-on way to learn a new craft, and the capacity to care for colonies as well as cows.