Beekeeping has traditionally been a man’s profession. Often taken on by farmers, it can be a tough way of life; battling against adverse weather conditions, disease affecting bee colonies and economic recession. It takes time, commitment, resilience and a genuine love of working with bees and nature to produce the best raw honey. The ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day” in the USA (now includes sons too) which made me think of four, smart, strong female apiarists I came across on my travels recently. They all spoke of their father’s influence in their decision to become beekeepers. Each are inspirational in making their mark on the beekeeping landscape. I found out what drives them and the challenges they are facing today.
Jana is a well-established beekeeper and one of the biggest producers of raw honey in the Northern Cape of South Africa. She’s been practicing beekeeping for thirty years, learning the craft at her father’s knee since she was six years of age. She took over Bergland Farms as a young woman and has achieved much success. At best she has managed over 2000 hives, networking and collaborating with other beekeepers across the country and often asked to speak at international conferences on the subject. She has won awards including the Northern Cape Female Farmer of the Year and South African Female Farmer of the year. She says, ‘I believe in teaching the importance of bee farming and have actively engaged with local government to provide training for local communities – helping them setup bee-friendly, sustainable bee farms. We have also gone a step further by giving these communities access to the market’.
South African bees are known to be aggressive and Jana’s are no different. She works the hives in the evenings when the bees are calm. Her land and honey flow is made up of sunflowers, eucalyptus, citrus orchards for orange blossom honey and mango orchards.
My father always said, ‘believe in yourself. Take a chance and go for it, never stop.’
You can make a living out of beekeeping and there have been periods where I have made good money. I love that I never stop learning from bees. They are the most beautiful thing and I love working with them.
We are going through the worst drought in South Africa. Out of 2000 hives I am down to 500. I have to start again and build the bee population back up. It’s a challenge, but I hear my late father’s words in my head everyday so I won’t stop and I won’t give up.
Mango Honey Cream is 100% raw South African honey from mango blossoms and the orchards of the Limpopo. The mango orchards provide a sweet and subtle sap that honey bees find irresistible. Whipped to produce fine sugar crystals resulting in a smooth, creamy, spreadable honey it’s coming to Balqees customers soon.
In an industry that is predominantly white and male it was encouraging to hear about Mokgadi Mabela, the woman behind Native Nosi. A third generation beekeeper who launched her business in 2015 when she was 28 years old, using start-up capital to buy hives and equipment. Based near Kruger Park her bees forage there, in Gauteng and the North Western areas of South Africa. She chases the harvest, moving the hives to allow for seasonal changes to the climate.
In a country that imports more than 50% of its honey she is striving to change the business landscape. She currently has 108 hives which she projects will grow to 360 hives by early 2019 as she responds to demand. Her aim? To not only produce raw honey but to also help alleviate poverty through job creation. She is also educating local farmers of the benefits of housing bees on their land.
“I won R27,500 through a pitch competition sponsored by SAB, Standard Bank and The Hook Up Dinner which I used to buy the equipment I needed to get started. My father helped me and now I’m hoping to break down the stereotypes about young, black, females in business and agriculture.”
“Working with farmers and their realisation that having bees on their land improves yield for them. 2kgs of avocados can increase to 5kgs when bees are around and pollination is in process, so bees potentially provide extra income to farmers.”
“It can be lonely. I am a young, black female in a predominantly older, white, male environment so it can be isolating. You are constantly learning as a beekeeper and figuring things out so it’s important to be able to share your problems and your ideas with others in the same industry. Hopefully this will get better as the industry changes. I’m lucky it’s a family business so I have my husband, sister and father supporting me. The challenge to grow commercially and become relevant to leading retailers is still ongoing, but I am not backing down.”
“Avocado and macadamia raw honey is dark in colour and rich in taste. I add sunflower, blue gum or acacia to lighten it. Bees can travel up to 5-8km so you might also pick up other tones like butternut or litchi (one of the oldest tree species in South Africa) depending on the time of year and location.”
For more about Mokgadi read A Taste of South African Honey.
Gabrielle discovered the healing power of raw honey and working with bees later in life after a successful career in cotton farming and she hasn’t looked back. Based in New South Wales, Australia, she is in the business of growing and selling Phoenix date palms. She became more and more fascinated by the tree and discovered its pollen has highly nutritious and medicinal properties. She began working with bees to save her the labour of harvesting the pollen. That was three years ago and she has taken her time researching, planning, planting, growing and creating one of the most amazing apiaries I have ever seen. Her care and attention to detail means she has built up the bee’s health and created a colourful and diverse pollinator haven full of medicinal herbs and flowers. State of the art hives maintain an efficient, disease-free living environment for the bees to thrive.
“I call them, ‘our little pharmacists’” says Gabrielle.
“I love researching and finding out information. I have connected with universities in Turkey and the Middle East on a quest to understand the best practices and the potential health benefits of palm pollen. There is very good evidence to suggest date palm pollen can help with male and female fertility issues as well as other amazing health benefits.
My father used to say, ‘Open your eyes and ears and your brain will grow’. I’m still learning from his wisdom to this day.
For more about Gabrielle’s practice and her bee haven read A Taste of Paradise A Beekeeper Story from Australia”
“We produce honeycomb from the hive that hasn’t been touched by humans. It’s delicious and full of nutrients and healing properties and tastes great. I honestly believe that pure raw honey, palm bee pollen and raw honeycomb can change people’s lives.”
Marie lives in Queensland, Australia and comes from a line of beekeepers, all male. Her grandfather and father were beekeepers and now her brothers are too. She had a successful career as a dental therapist but the lure of keeping bees brought her back to the hives. Instead of filling and drilling she nurtures and harvests. Beekeeping is in her blood and this carries a lot of value to Marie. Recently she struck out on her own, setting up her own independent business and produces her own, highly medicinal, jelly bush raw honey.
“My milessone moment was when I chose to produce Manuka-type honeys and make a better living for myself. I didn’t want to produce table honey alone because it’s really hard to make a living unless you want to go big and I prefer to produce quality over quantity.”
“It can be heavy work and difficult when there’s a blowout on the 4×4 or I have to change a tyre on the tractor.”
“Ultimately I love working in and around nature, with ‘my girls’ (the bees) and this keeps me healthy.”
“Some of my honeys are really strong and incredibly healing, particularly for wound care and beating those super bugs. One of my jelly bush raw honeys has an MGO grading of 11.71 or 25+ UMF.”
“I’m planting leptospurmum or jelly bush on my land, working with Gather By, an agri-business here, to develop the medicinal honeys and to help build Australia’s ‘Manuka’ market.”
For more about Marie and her story read my post Queenslands Queen of Bees.
Meeting beekeepers is always inspiring and helps me to really understand and appreciate the raw honey that we source for Balqees. These four female beekeepers all demonstrate a determination to produce something unique and of the highest quality while respecting nature and the environment. And, in some cases, they are contributing something of lasting value to their communities. Truly inspiring.
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