The ever-present and absolutely necessary presence of bees

Bees - an industry in migration


Top Stories
Goldfield Honey Australia's John Lockwood loads beehives onto a flatbed truck in the late afternoon sun in state forest near Cargo.

Goldfield Honey Australia's John Lockwood loads beehives onto a flatbed truck in the late afternoon sun in state forest near Cargo.

Aa

Australia's burgeoning almond industry keeps migratory beekeepers on the move.

Aa

TWO flatbed trucks towing dog trailers make their way up a rough track late on a Saturday afternoon in state forest near Cargo.

On each truck is a forklift and the entire operation is managed by four men.  

In a couple of hours they will load 900 beehives and move them from a diet of Bundy apple eucalypt to canola near West Wyalong.

This is beekeeping in the 21st century and the relocation of these hives is just a part of Goldfields Honey Australia's 7000-hive operation.

If you buy honey from Aldi in NSW, there's a good chance the bees on the side of this hill produced some of it.

John Lockwood would have watched over the hives, brother Sam Lockwood would have packed it into 500 gram tubs at Vittoria, between Bathurst and Orange, in a factory connected to the Beekeeper's Inn.

Aldi picks up 20,000 of the tubs a week from the inn.

DIFFICULTIES OF BUREAUCRACY

GOLDFIELDS Honey Australia employs 20 people and wants to expand, but as John explains, it's hard to get professional beekeepers and the current wrangle about 457 visas is just making it harder. Among the nationalities working the family’s bees are Filipinos, Argentinians and Turks, but Mr Lockwood says he has just taken on a young Australian who is currently enrolled in Tocal Agricultural College and employed as a trainee.

The company's goal is to double hive numbers to 14,000 within 15 years as it capitalises on the expansion of Australia's almond industry, something that shows no signs of abating.

Almonds are 100 per cent reliant on bees for pollination. This year the Lockwood clan will move 5000 hives to almond plantations on the Murray River in the state’s south. Mr Lockwood describes the almond season as Australia’s largest movement of livestock at any one time.

While huge nut growers Select Harvest and Olam currently set prices at $105 per hive for the month-long pollination season, Mr Lockwood says soon they will have to come in line with global rates, which are about US$200 per hive.

“They’ll need us more than we need them in the near future,” he said.

The bees have to be strong for the almond season, there's no honey as a byproduct from working the almonds, they're placed purely for pollination and beekeepers spend autumn building their strength.

When they arrive at the plantations each hive is inspected to determine their worth underneath the trees.

"It's very labour intensive," said Mr Lockwood, explaining that each hive must be re-queened annually and in preparing to pollinate the nuts high nutrition must be assured with supplemental feeding.

Beekeeping in the 21st century

A LIFETIME OF CHASING HIVES

BILL Trimmer's love for bees began when he was a boy, just down the road from where the 78-year-old lives today, at Spring Terrace.

He reels off the names of Central Tablelands families that keep bees: Warren Taylor at Blayney, the Lockwoods of Vittoria, Charlie Cosido at Orange.

In testimony  to an ever-changing environment, the fact Patterson's curse is nowhere near as prolific as it once was has ended the Central West's ability to maintain permanent hives.

Bees need constant floral fuel to sustain life, these days, if you're not going to move them, supplemental feeding with sugar syrup and pollen in the winter is necessary.

"Once upon a time the Patterson's curse would come out in the nick of time," said Bill.

It's taken a long time to learn the things I know... - Bill Trimmer

But it is not only the floral environment that has changed, Bill laments yesteryear's lost knowledge. 

"A lot of the old blokes have died and succession planning was non existent, so their knowledge is just gone."

"Most of the surviving beekeepers are family businesses," he said.

Was it like that for him?

Not on your life.

"Nope dad was not a fan," said Bill, chuckling.

"I was 10, driving a John Deere AR pulling a reaper and binder, cutting a crop of oats.

"We were laying rows of sheaves and I heard dad singing out and I looked around.

"Well, vibration seems to make bees settle, and they'll swarm onto something.

"This swarm had settled alright - on the old man's seat!"

NO FAMILY LEGACY

IT WAS not the only run in with the little blighters his father had to suffer.

"We had a paddock of peas, and there was an old branch hanging out over the edge of them, my father bumped his head on it and he got stung right between the eyes, no he didn't like them much."

The Trimmer family – a William Trimmer has resided in the same home for three generations – used to grow potatoes, peas and hay for their cattle and sheep on 40 hectares (then 300 acres).

Bill remembers the day he captured his first bees, "I was coming back from my grandfather's house and I was pulling a billy cart behind my bike, I caught some and put them in a pea bag and took them home."

At home he had to get imaginative, "I grabbed an old kerosene box, tins of kerosene used to come packed in a box.

"Then I laid down a piece of corrugated iron and put the box over the bag, undid the string and took off with the bees after me," he said.

"But they stayed and made a comb."

To this day Bill hovers at the edge of commercial production, maintaining 200 hives.

Bill poses uncomfortably with his old extraction van.

Bill poses uncomfortably with his old extraction van.

LONG TIME COMING

"IT’S taken a long time to learn the things I know," he mused, "once we used to block the hives up and move them at night, that's how it was done, but we were cutting off their air conditioning.

"Now we know, that if you're careful and don't bump them, a couple of puffs of smoke and they don't come out," he said.

Like so many young people from rural areas, when Bill was 11 he was sent off to boarding school, Hurlston Agricultural High School, in Sydney's southwest.

He had to leave his hive, and it survived, his father's nemesis.

At Hurlston Bill's interest in bees remained and a group of like-minded students got some hives going at Hurlston.

"There was an old bloke at the back of the farm who had hives too, 15 of them in fact, and a bunch of us spent a lot of time with him, I was in the Young Farmers then too," he said.

"He was getting old and I don't know whether we bought them or he gave them to us, but we ended up with them.”

A couple of puffs of smoke and they don't come out...

When Bill's time at Hurlston was done it was time to relocate the hives to Spring Terrace.

"Poor old dad, he came to pick them up in the old Chevvy Maple Leaf.

"We had to carry the hives to the fence and the bottoms of them had white ants in them.

"I reckon I ended up with about 100 stings, but we got the 15 hives."

Those hives ended up out Tullamore-Fifield way on a friend's place.

"They were on Mallee out there, they get fat on green Mallee, they were filling all the cells in the hives once a week," he said.

SWARMING SEASON INTERVENTION

BILL had his sights set on studying next at Sydney University but, "I had to sit the leaving certificate right in the middle of swarming season – yep – cricket and bees damaged my bid for Sydney Uni, missed it by one mark."

However Bill was successful in winning a cadetship with the Department of Agriculture and was off to study at Hawkesbury Agricultural College.

His love affair with bees continued.

"The Mackay Police Boys Club had a citrus orchard in North Richmond, good for the bees."

In his time He said he was very privileged to have studied under bee experts, at Wagga, Orange and Tamworth.

On the wall of his dining room is a framed print of places at which he was stationed with the Department of Agriculture through the years – Wagga Wagga, Bathurst, Glen Innes, Dareton, Yanco, Orange, Bathurst, Orange, Gosford and Spring Terrace.

He was in training until Yanco and spent 36 years of 41 with the department at research stations.

FRUIT PRODUCTION AND THE COMING SEASON

BILL’S work mainly centred on fruit production, so he was never far removed from the work of the insects he so admires.

The knowledge passed on led Bill to become one of the first beekeepers to put hives on Canola, in 1967.

The benefits for both parties are now well documented – pollination of canola is increased by bees by about 15 per cent on average and the plant is good floral fodder for bees.

"Canola yields better honey when it's a bit stressed," said Bill, "when it's as high as the fence it's not that good."

He said while canola honey was good, it did tend to candy quite quickly.

"It candies in about three days, even less in the cooler weather."

To de-candy honey it's simply warmed.

"I've got a hot room, so I can extract at anytime," said Bill, gesturing to a shed.

His gear means he can extract about one-and-a-half tonnes in a day.

Even though Bill's extractor was bought in the 1970s, the amount it can process is still a far cry from what was once possible.

In his garden there's an old wagon that looks for all the world like a gypsy caravan.

It's an extraction van, bought in 1965, that he used to haul to an area central to where he had hives, he had it parked at Molong for a long time.

Inside he explains various doors and shutters and what they were for.

In the bottom righthand corner is a trap door, where the frames from the hives were fed in and lugged to the extractor.

He shows me where there was once a tap in the floor that filled four-gallon (about 15 litres) tins, in which was honey was then sold.

He used to move to the Pilliga, good honey country, to Eulo, Condobolin, the South Coast, even to south west Queensland's channel country.

The van's last movement was to the Australian National Field Days at Borenore about eight years ago.

END OF AN ERA

NOW it's being recycled as an extra bedroom for the grandchildren when they come to visit and it is about to be wired in place.

"It's a lot easier with the electrics," said Bill, "there used to be a two-stroke engine that ran the extractor, electric is a lot cleaner."

Today is much different, looking at the trench being cut towards towards the old extraction wagon and a coil of electric cable which will be laid in it, we pause and appreciate an element of history is being lost.

When the trench reaches the wagon there will come the confluence of an era gone and “the grid”.

Workers check beehives in state forest on the Central Tablelands

AGEING WITH GRACE

BILL reflects that honey doesn't mature with age "you might get slight deterioration, but I've got 44-gallon-drums six years old and you couldn't tell (what age they were)."

Asked about the current season and how it was looking, he reckoned the canola was flowering increasingly early, but the continuity of almonds was good.

He said on the Central Tablelands yellow box had looked really promising last autumn, but the hot summer had brought flowering forward a month or so.

"So that's sort of lost now," he said, because about 30 per cent of the trees in the region have already flowered.

"You really need trees flowering for two to three months and night-time temperatures of about 75 degrees Farenheit (almost 24 degrees Celsius) and we won't get them until the end of October, hopefully the frosts have held them up a bit and will slow them down.

"There might be some good patches yet. You’ve got to be a super optimist to be a beekeeper, like many things in agriculture I guess.”

Aa

From the front page

Sponsored by