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Keith Olsen never considered keeping a small apiary on his 10 hectare South Otago lifestyle block but when a close family friend, faced with a move into a retirement village, wanted to offload his bee-keeping equipment, the opportunity suddenly presented itself. As Keith explains, he just couldn’t resist the challenge.

“My father had kept a few hives as a hobby when I was a child so I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with bee keeping. But, to be honest, I didn’t know where to start first. I was lucky that Frank, the friend who gave me the equipment, was able to talk me through it and work with me for the first year.”

The bee-keeping equipment came with 4 already-working hives which Keith and Frank secured with strops, loaded onto a trailer, and shifted to from Invercargill to Keith’s home in the Catlins.

“The bees got off to a good start because, as well as there being no varroa in those days, our land was also adjacent to native forest. We shifted the hives in at the start of summer when the kamahi was in bloom, the manuka was just about to flower, and the rata was only a couple of weeks away.”

It seemed like a dream come true as the bees filled one super after another. And with Frank on hand to advise, Keith quickly got to grips with the regular hive inspections which he carried out every 10 days.

“A lot of people think you just leave a hive of bees on your land to get on with it but, actually, it’s a lot of work managing even a small apiary, especially now that varroa is in the country. The first summer we had the bees, I actually got a false impression of what it takes to keep hives. It was hot, dry, and everything was in flower. We averaged an excess of 20 kilos of honey off each hive.”

Since then, Keith has often experienced ‘summers’ that have felt more like winters.

“We’ve had Decembers and Januarys when it’s been so wet and windy the bees have hardly had a chance to get out and forage. They end up bringing in just enough honey to feed themselves over the winter, and that’s it. There’s no surplus to extract. Then there have been summers that have been more like winters, when I’ve had to feed sugar syrup to the bees just to keep them alive. And sugar isn’t cheap.”

And that was before the varroa mite made its dreaded appearance in the country.

“The mite is a little insect that lays its eggs in the same cells the queen bee lays hers. The mites hatch before the bees and feed on the grubs, killing them before they hatch. The only way to deal with the situation is to place chemical or organic-impregnated plastic strips in the hives. The chemicals kill off the mites but the problem is, unless you’re using organic strips, you can’t consume the honey the bees produce while the strips are in place.”

Given that the organic strips are less effective than the chemical ones, and that they can only be used effectively in warmer regions of the country, bee keepers are faced with a problem.

“The hives can manage without the strips for 2-3 months so that’s when you cross your fingers and hope for good weather for nectar foraging. After that, the strips have to go back in the hives and you can’t keep collecting honey. Sometimes, if the varroa is particularly strong, you have to put the strips back in the hives before the 2-3 month period is up so your honey collection time is shortened even further.”

But that doesn’t stop Keith enjoying his bees.

“Unless you’re a full-time bee keeper, it’s not all about getting every last drop of honey from a hive. Even with the strips in place, the bees are still out there pollinating, which is good for our fruit trees and vege garden. We don’t use a lot of honey ourselves but it makes wonderful gifts which our friends and neighbours really appreciate. As the cost of registering hives and the price of equipment goes up, we might think about selling honey from the door, but we’re not doing that at the moment.”

Bees are a way of life for Keith and his family and although the 2-3 hours a month it takes to manage the 6 hives he now has on his property are sometimes hard to fit in, he’s adamant he wouldn’t be without a hobby apiary.

“There’s something about hearing the hum of bees in the garden, and seeing them take off as the day warms up. You get so used to them. The place would seem empty without them.”

What you need to know

Cost: a hive, with bees, costs anywhere between $300-600 (if you know what you’re doing, you can divide up your own hives after a year or two to create new colonies).
Equipment to manage hives costs around $500 (regardless of the number of hives you have). A honey extractor (hand-powered) can be bought new for around $300. Varroa strips cost around $15 a year per hive. If you live in a colder part of the country, factor in the cost of sugar for winter feed. Apiaries must also be registered, and if you are not qualified to provide an annual disease inspection yourself, you will need to employ someone who is to do this.

Apiary siting: bees require full sun and a good degree of shelter. Hives can be placed about 1 metre from each other so not a lot of land is required. However the bees will need access to flowering plants from early spring until late autumn so observe the seasons to see what is available for them within a 3km radius (the distance they will fly) of your land.

Safety: before you begin thinking about beekeeping, check with your doctor to ensure you don’t have a dangerous allergic reaction to bee stings. Site your hives well away from public walkways and roads so bees don’t bother the public. In some parts of the country, especially where bees collect nectar predominantly from manuka honey, theft of honey from hives is a real concern.

Cost recovery: Many small-scale bee keepers off-set their apiary costs by selling their own honey locally. If you plan to do this, and especially if you are budgeting for it, remember that honey prices vary wildly from season to season. It is also important to check out the regulations regarding honey-sales before you take this next step.

Tips

Look for hives and second-hand equipment for sale on places such as Trade Me.

Join a local bee keeping club. These can be found in many parts of the country and provide valuable instruction, especially for hobbyists. If you can’t attend a club, seek out a mentor.

Enrol with an education provider for qualifications which will allow you to annually inspect your own hives.

Educate yourself online with a quality bee keepers’ site.

Wintering over: Bees cluster together in the colder months, especially in chilly parts of the country. Raise the hive off the ground to assist with insulation.

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