A Family of Beekeeping
At Mountain Valley Honey the love of bees is a real family affair. It’s almost as if the fascination with these little creatures is in our genes - passed down through the generations. We love how our family and business lives are interwoven — it’s hard to imagine it being any other way.
Our family’s love affair with bees all began when Merv, Murray’s father, discovered a swarm of bees in 1968. Back then Merv was pretty nervous about the whole thing.
He dressed himself in what he now calls ‘a suit of armour’ (the feral bees were pretty vicious back then) and managed to get the swarm into an apple box.
The bees really captured his heart — he got himself a gentle yellow queen from the North Island to replace the feral queen and never looked back. Back then, Merv and Jean focused on providing pollination for orchardists rather than selling honey.
By the time Murray was three years old, the bees had become happy members of the family. A photograph of Murray as a small child painting the beehives gives a hint that he too was destined to become a beekeeper.
Of course Merv and Jean didn’t want to take a chance on their little boy being allergic to bees. So Merv sat him down on the step of the house, got a bee and made it sting Murray.
Jean reflects that ‘it was a horrible time for a mother, sitting there watching her husband give her little son a bee sting.’ The bee probably wasn’t impressed either. And, as Murray points out now, they might have chosen a better spot than his ankle. He couldn’t put his shoe on for two days!
While he didn’t react badly that time, Murray was actually quite allergic to bees. When he was at school he got stung and his tongue swelled up so he couldn’t breathe, after a very rushed trip to the doctor, it meant that he ended up needing a course of injections to desentize him.
Later, when Merv asked his son if he could help him out one spring, Murray wasn’t entirely convinced. He promised to give him one season to see how it went. That one season turned into 27 seasons and counting. Murray laughs about that now — ‘the bees got their hooks into me!’
Like the rest of our team, Merv and Murray really appreciate the quiet places that beekeepers get to work, places that are especially chosen for the bees. ‘I think the bees would be quite proud of me for the places I’ve chosen for them,’ says Murray.
Like his father before him, he loves the outdoors and the sun on his back. He even loves the hard work and being hot and bothered in the bee suit: ‘I figure it’s good for me. I’m an outdoor person, I always have been.’
At 90 years old, Merv is still involved with the business. The whole team is pretty amused that he's gone from wearing his ‘suit of armour,’ to not bothering with a bee suit at all.
“I don't know what it is, some days I can work them all day and I never get a sting and other days I get one or two. I’ve got to the stage where I don’t need to have a suit.” says Merv.
“In the early days I was well rugged up, gloves and everything but not these days.”
Maybe it’s down to his years of experience and sense of calm, or perhaps the bees just sense how much he loves and appreciates them.
Merv still helps with some of our queen-raising and reckons it’s that, along with eating honey every day, which keeps him alive. Jean is more than happy to encourage him: ‘it keeps him out from under my feet,’ she laughs.
Merv and Jean are still very much part of our beekeeping family.
As Nicky points out, they’re very grounding.
“If we’re in the thick of it, we can go and visit there, sit down and have a cup of tea and chat about things on our mind.’
Jean always starts every visit by saying the same thing…
“Right, let’s talk about the family, then you can talk about the bees.”
Family is very much at the heart of our lives and our business — but, actually, when you’re beekeepers, everything revolves around the bees. We treat our bees as if they are part of our family. And sometimes they are the most demanding part!
Nicky and Murray remember that they barely saw each other during the first summer they were going out. And they had to arrange their wedding to fit in with the bee pollination.
Not much has changed really. The bees still dictate our social calendar. We enjoy socialising in midwinter because it is a much more relaxed time to catch up with friends. Christmas is a pretty hectic time for us. With all three of our children involved in the business in various ways as they have grown up, and two other beekeepers in the family (Murray's sister Cath and her husband) we’re sure the rest of the family gets pretty sick of all the bee-talk over Christmas dinner.
Nicky’s side of the family has also embraced the business. When her parents retired they began to help out on our Saturday market stall in Nelson. Their enthusiasm and support over the years has been priceless, especially on rainy days! Sadly Nicky’s mum has now passed away, but her dad still mans the stall every second week. It’s just as well he loves talking about honey!
Over the years, our family business has grown slowly. Now it’s just as big as we want it to be. When we employ people, it feels a bit like adopting them into the family.
As Nicky says, ‘We really appreciate our team. They love bees and they love honey and they know that they have to rely on each other. We appreciate all they bring to MVH and at times the sacrifices they make when the season ramps up.
Beekeeping is a lot of hard work, but we have heaps of fun too. Some of our favourite days are pie days. If the weather is a bit rough outside or it’s been a particularly hard day, we grab some pies from the brilliant Wakefield Bakery.
Then we sit together and catch up with all the team.
We always say that it’s the little things that count. But having our family around us is a huge thing, and something that we cherish every day.