The Secret Life of Beekeepers: What’s Beneath the Suit?
There’s something a little bit mysterious about beekeeping. It’s probably thanks to the bees, and the almost magical way they produce honey. But beekeepers definitely play a role, what with their weird outfits, odd gadgets and strange nocturnal habits.
We asked our team to ‘tell all,’ to give our customers a sneak peek into the secret life of the people behind our beautiful New Zealand honey.
Beekeeping definitely has its humorous side. Where else do you get to dress up like a cross between ‘The Stig’ and an astronaut? Those suits can be “jolly hot” though, especially in the middle of summer. Our guys often have to trek uphill to reach the hives.
Although we always move the bees at night, they say the sweat still pours off them at 3.00am in the morning! Wearing fewer layers underneath might seem like a great idea, but that can lead to trouble — the bees can sting you through the suit.
The beekeepers often get stung on the shoulders, where the suit is tight against the skin, or on the back of a calf when squatting down to work a hive. Thick gloves are a great idea to protect your fingers, but they make dexterous work really difficult. Sometimes it’s better to use yellow dishwashing gloves instead!
Getting stung is inevitable in our work and you never really get used to it: “the bees seem to know where to get you.” It’s especially painful around the eyes, ears or nose. One of our guys actually got stung on his eyeball! That’s the stuff of nightmares.
Every now and then somebody gets a bit too confident. One cloudy day there was a $20 bet between two young beekeepers to see who could last longest without a suit. The only problem was, bees can get pretty grumpy on cloudy days. Five minutes into the bet, the two guys looked like they’d come out of a Botox clinic, with lots of stings on their bodies and faces. The suits were back on quick smart and the bet was off!
You won’t be surprised to learn that we always have an Epi-pen at the ready. After years of experience, Merv, Murray's father, is the only one on our team who really gets away with not wearing a suit.
Over time, beekeepers become experts at reading bees and keeping them calm. If the bees do get a bit agitated, that’s when a smoker comes in handy. A little puff of smoke encourages the bees to just eat some honey and ‘chill out.’ The smoke also masks the ‘alarm pheromone’ given off by guard bees. Since this pheromone smells a lot like bananas, bananas are the worst snack for beekeepers. We prefer pies from our local bakery, and coffee — good coffee.
When it comes to gadgets, beekeepers would be lost without a hive tool. Bees use a really tough resin-like substance to build their hives, called propolis. The hive tool is used to detach comb from the sides of the hives and pry the frames away from each other. We also carry a soft brush, so we can gently brush bees out of the way.
Our beekeepers have to be prepared to trek into the wilderness, moving heavy boxes over rough terrain. It’s really physical work. But there’s lots of problem solving, too. One of our guys summed it up perfectly: “When you come across a hive and you know something is wrong ... you have to work out what the problem is. Is it hungry, or lacking pollen? Or has the queen gone bad or left? Sometimes these problems are obvious. Sometimes they’re a bit of a mystery, so it can take some theorizing on what could be holding it back.” Intuition and experience play a crucial role in keeping the bees happy.
A beekeeper’s secret weapon is a great sense of humour. There’s a real camaraderie in our little team and we all enjoy a good laugh, whether working in the shed or out in the wilderness. Merv’s favourite story is about the time one of our female friends who is a beekeeper took a pee too close to an electric fence. It gave her a bit of a shock! You certainly have to be able to laugh at yourself in this job.
Everyone on the team gets a real kick out of working in such beautiful, wild places — even if it does make for very long days and unsociable hours. Often we’re heading home just as other people are waking up. But we probably wouldn’t do it at all if we didn’t share a fascination with bees.
Even though we’ve been stung more times than we can count, we love our bees and think of them as part of the family. Just like family they can be hard work. If they do get a bit grumpy sometimes, we don’t care. We love them anyway. For us that’s what beekeeping is all about.