Beekeepers, Keeping it in the Family

Beekeepers, Keeping it in the Family

I am directed to a building off the main square in a small Portuguese town in the hills of the Algarve. I am looking for local honey and have a tip-off where to go to see is a father and son operation. A large barking dog greets me followed by the handshake of a young man who leads me to his honey production unit. Hives are stacked in a corner and there are two vats for spinning and separating the beeswax and honey. It is clean, neat and organised. Looking up I see a boy on the stairs, no older than sixteen with a lady I presume is his mother.  They give me a smile and a wave; it dawns on me that this is also the family home with living quarters above the production house. The beekeeper shows me his honeys which have hints of rosemary, lavender and arbutus when I taste them.

When the time comes for me to leave, I see ‘papai’ tucked away in the corner, cleaning the frames from the hives. He’s shy, but happy to leave his son to do the talking whilst he gets on with the work that’s necessary. I shake his hand, the only way we communicate is via translation from his older son. However, a look in the eye, a recognition and understanding between us and I know he and his son are providing a living for their family the best way they can, from bees and their environment.

Travelling the world, meeting beekeepers and observing their practices in producing raw honey has given me the pleasure of connecting with some incredible people and their families.

Here are just some of the inspirational stories of beekeeping families I have met, giving an insight into their lives and the work they do producing amazing honey.

beekeeper with frames

Peter from A1 Honey

It’s a family tradition for Peter at A1 Honey in South Africa who has been keeping bees for 30 years. Peter reconnected with the practice after he retired from the Special Intelligence Unit in Cape Town. He harvests around four tons of honey a year which is foraged by the bees from eucalyptus, fynbos and many other sources of wild flowers. He operates his small business from his home and backyard. He has a growing number of hives producing 4 tons a year and his hives are kept on farms within a 20 km radius of his home.

Peter’s grandfather was a hunter and would come back from his trips with wild honey. He would trade wax for salt or other goods at the local store. In the 1950’s Peter’s mother was known as the ‘honey woman’ at her bowling club in the Eastern Cape. She would sell her excess honey to friends and neighbours. She sold 500g for 25 cents back then and now Peter sells it for 55R. She lived to the ripe old age of 94. Peter also grew up learning from his father. He says, “I love nothing more than sitting in the  veltd clearing my mind and taking in the peace.  That’s where I would sit with my father as he coached me on beekeeping and life, drinking coffee and eating bread. I still miss him to this day.”

4 beekeepers standing in a line

Riath Hamed with Lennie, David and Nathan Walker

Over in Australia, in New South Wales, the Walkers have been in the beekeeping business since 1928. I had the pleasure spending time with three generations of the Walkers tasting their amazing bush honeys – father Lennie, son David and grandson Nathan. It was Lennie’s father in-law Frank who got into bees when he went to ‘bee school’ and then set up a shed to produce honey.  Hard times meant he had to leave the land for a while, but was lured back in 1955 when he bought some hives. Lennie started working with Frank in 1963 when he was just 16 years old and married into the business making it a real family affair.

Lennie recently retired but still has a few hives to tend to, whilst David and Nathan continue on with the legacy and 3000 hives. They produce award-winning honey, and are known as ‘beekeeper royalty’. Another title they have earned is ‘fence-post’ beekeepers which means they can produce amazing honey even when the forces of nature, such as droughts, are against them. With all this experience being handed down through the family they have developed an instinct for best practice. Their bees have survived harsh weather conditions, threat of disease and other natural hazards.  The family have withstood the financial pressure of large conglomerates driving prices down. They have persevered when many Australian beekeepers haven’t. Lennie says, “I fear for the industry at large because the intuition that can only be honed through mentoring and spending time with someone with experience in the long run saves time from early mistakes. You can’t cheat the process without affecting the product”

beekeeper and hives in front of mountains

I first visited High Peak in 2016 when I met the Guild family on their 10,000 acre estate located near the famous Rakaia River in New Zealand’s South Island. There, James and Anna have raised their three children Hamish, Simon and Ameila. They all live on the estate with their partners and young families working the farm. Originally from Scotland, the Guild family has a proud New Zealand farming history dating back to 1840. After seven generations, this bond to the land remains as strong as ever. Tom Dunbar is married to Amelia, an actress and artist, and has an interesting background himself. He was a competitive skier travelling the world before injury stopped him in is tracks and he returned to his first love beekeeping. He grew up on a farm with a love for the mountains and at High Peak he produces the most amazing Alpine honey, Raw Black Beech Honeydew which we stock at Balqees along with the highly medicinal Royal Manuka Honey. Tom the beekeeer is always happy in the mountains tending his bees.

Stavely, near Ashburton in New Zealand is the original home to Syme Apiaries where I met John Syme, a beekeeper and engineer, who showed me around his honey house. John has been beekeeping for 77 years, basically all his life, and is the third generation of Symes to keep bees. His father and grandfather before him were beekeepers farming the bush land 1,400 ft. above sea level. John learned a lot from his Dad and in 1968 was inspired to invent a honey extractor which separates the raw honey from the beeswax and extracts the raw honey too. I asked John what he thinks is the biggest challenge to the industry today, he says, “I believe it’s the lack of incentive and training for young people. Fair pricing is one way to bring a younger generation into the industry but also offering correct training from experienced beekeepers who have the years behind them to know exactly how processes work. They have experienced the trials and tribulations and can guide, or even fast track the young so they don’t have to make the same mistakes and go through the hardships that the previous generation endured.”

Reasons to Work in the Family Honey Business

  • Handing down skills and a trade from parent to child and providing work for your offspring
  • Allowing the business and practice to grow.
  • Passing on a legacy

Benefits of working with bees or becoming a beekeeper

  • Working with nature and understanding bees
  • Working with the elements and not against them
  • Pleasure and reward when you harvest the natural raw honey from the hive

In the words of William Shakespeare, “For so work the honey-bees, creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom.”   I see the work and the order passed on to the people, the families working in the business of bees. You feel this tremendous bond between the generations, a love and pride that filters through to the way they practice and the taste of their raw honey.