Meet Pete: One of our Busy Beekeepers

With the honey season in full swing, now is the perfect time to introduce you to one of our beekeepers. Pete has been with Mountain Valley Honey since the early days. Over the years he’s shared some of our most challenging times, as well as our funniest moments.

Being a senior beekeeper, with a wealth of experience, Pete works closely with Murray when it comes to decision-making. His innovative thinking and ability to motivate the team are really appreciated  — especially when things get tough.

When he’s not beekeeping, Pete loves mountain biking, 4W driving, tramping (hiking) and generally enjoying the outdoors. On weekends Pete, his wife Steph and their dog Juno are often out and about enjoying what our region has to offer. Pete’s not a bad photographer either. Every now and then you’ll see one of his pics on our social media. We asked Pete to answer a few questions about his experiences as a beekeeper.

What is your favourite honey?

I like stronger flavourful honey like Mānuka, Kānuka and Kamahi.

How long have you been a beekeeper, and how long have you worked at MVH?

I had to get out the calculator to figure that one out. I started beekeeping at Mountain Valley Honey over 15 years ago. 

How has beekeeping changed since you started?

When I started we had far fewer hives. We were based out of Murray’s father’s shed and most of our gear was kept in various shipping containers. A lot of gear was kept in stacks in the backyard. It had a real grass-roots feel back then. Now we have a purpose built shed with an extraction plant, meaning we can do all the work ourselves. It’s come a long way since I started.

What is a typical day like for you as a beekeeper?

One of the great things about beekeeping is that the work varies throughout the year, so a typical day in summer is quite different to a typical day in spring or winter. Spring is our most challenging time of the year. That’s when the hives are building up bee numbers ready for summer. That’s what we want — we just need to be careful they don’t get too strong too quickly or they will swarm and we are back to square one. Spring is a difficult balancing act. 

The pollination of the local apple orchards adds to the workload in spring, as well as producing new queens for the coming honey season. It’s always a relief to get through spring, then move all the hives to the right locations for honey production. 

Summer can be busy too, but it’s a lot simpler work. Doing a check of brood health then harvesting honey sums up most days. Autumn is mostly all about preparing hives for the winter ahead, including moving the distant hives to a more local area for easier maintenance. Winter has shorter, easier days: repairing gear, cleaning things and general maintenance really.

What do you enjoy most about beekeeping?

I like the challenges of working with nature and being out in the countryside. The work is varied and interesting, even if at times hard and stressful. 

In your opinion, what’s the coolest thing about bees?

There are so many things, the way they navigate to find nectar sources, the way they communicate through dance, the way the hive is organized so that every bee has its job to do. But I’m gonna go a bit simplistic and say it’s super cool that these insects can produce a product as delicious as honey! Not only delicious but with some of the health benefits too.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in beekeeping?

The varroa mite is one problem we just can’t get rid of. The mites will kill a hive if their numbers get out of control. Some of the most effective ways of dealing with them are starting to lose effectiveness. So that’s a big challenge we face over the coming years.

How often do you get stung? What’s the worst place to get stung?

Pretty regularly I guess. You get used to stings but they can still hurt. Getting stung through the bee suit is not so bad usually. The worst places to get stung are often places you can’t see, for example the top of the head. The venom sack is attached to the sting and ideally you try to scratch the sting out from below without squeezing the sack — otherwise you get a full dose. That’s harder when you can’t see what you are doing and are going by feel. You pretty much always end up squeezing the venom sack in those situations. 

Can you share a particularly memorable experience you’ve had while beekeeping?

The shifting of hives with a helicopter is pretty memorable at any time, but the first time we did it was particularly so. The hives get flown to areas we cannot reach by vehicle. To shift the hives by helicopter, we need to bring the hives to a large flat area where we can transfer them to pallets, put honey supers on and strap them up. Then the helicopter flies above with a hanging line and a hook. We attach the strops to the hook and the helicopter moves 2 pallets, each with 4 hives, at a time. 

Each load takes about 2-3 mins, between the helicopter leaving with one load and coming back for the next. These days we do all the setting up a few days before the helicopter comes, so that they are ready to go the morning we do the shift. But the first year we did it, we tried to do it all in one night. We were still trying to close up hives and strap them up when the helicopter arrived! That was after a night of loading hives, driving three hours, unloading hives, transferring from regular hive bases to pallets and adding supers. 

It was about 6am and we hadn’t stopped all night. We were still trying to strap up hives, then a heap of lids got blown off by the wind from the helicopter so we were scrambling to chase them and rushing to get everything tied down. I looked over and saw Murray telling one of the guys what to do, since Murray was leaving to be on the receiving end. I thought I had better hear that too, so I went over. It was such a brief run-down with no time for questions, then Murray rushed off to jump in the helicopter. 

We were still a bit confused. I heard the pilot ask Murray if we knew what to do — I guess he saw the confused looks on our faces. Murray just said ‘yes’ and jumped in the passenger seat. Then they took off! So, with very little sleep, two of us ran around trying to set up pallets as had been described, hoping that when the helicopter picked them up they wouldn’t be dropped straight down into the ocean below. Thankfully it all panned out. But we swore never to do the whole thing in one night/morning again. It goes a lot more smoothly these days.

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