Wollombi resident Clare DiNatale is a singer, a grandmother and a lover of honey. She uses it to sweeten her drinks every day. She buys huge tubs of it from different local beekeepers and doles it out by the jarful to her kids and grandkids. It’s important to her that the honey they get isn’t tainted.
“It comforts me, it’s so natural and sweet and lovely,” DiNatale says. “I like it if I have a spoonful in my coffee. I use it as a sweetener, a replacement instead of sugar if I’m making a cake. I used to give the kids, hot milk and honey; it’s a great calmative. It’s health giving; it’s nature. It’s a gift from the beautiful bees, which we’ve got to look after.”
Honey has been around long before people graced the earth and started enjoying it. Fossils of honeybees date back to 150 million years ago, and humans have been consuming it at least since ancient Egypt. Its namesake has inspired many references in pop culture, and the process the bees go through before you can drizzle honey onto your morning cereal is fascinating.
Plenty of people are invested in the local honey industry. Honey has been in the headlines in recent years global due to declining bee populations and nationally due to the Capilano adulterated honey controversy.
Ian Mills is a self-employed resident of Charlestown who does a few different jobs, including supplying eucalypt honey to local cafes including Good Brother, Suspension and Door 34. He keeps his own hives when he can. He describes himself “old school”.
At 57, he’s been dealing honey on and off all his life. His first job was an apiarist. He’s had many jobs, but he loves keeping bees. He goes out to the Goonoo forest near Dubbo and camps rough with other beekeepers and works the hives. He’s spent a lot of time watching hives and thinks we could all learn a lot from bees.
“We are very selfish people. Us as humans take as much as we can get and do as little as possible,” he says.
“But you look at bees, the day he’s born, as soon as he comes out of his cell he cleans, he does duties around the cell, and he does not stop until the day he dies.
“He doesn’t go ‘I’ve selected all the honey that’s all mine, [I’m done]’, he collects for everyone.
“They don’t go ‘I’ve done six days I’m having a holiday,’ they work every day. They work for the colony to survive. They are happy creatures. Rightio they sting, but we take from them.”
Mills has to move his hives around. He’ll spend two weeks in the bush with the hives and his mates and other beekeepers.
“You gotta look at buds, some trees take 12 months to bud. You gotta move them, you gotta look for areas, you gotta drive all night. You gotta put them on the truck and drive all night to where you’re going,” he says.
Roger Easton is a beekeeper who stays put. He’s the owner and operator of Highland Honey, in Fennell Bay. His hives stay on his property. He sells through markets and at Campbells store on Morpeth’s Main Street.
Before starting Highland Honey, Easton was in information technology. In 2007, he took on his son Stuart’s beekeeping business. He has nine hives in his backyard and four along the side of the house. He sells a variety of honey flavours and honey products including medicinal honey.
He says he can give his customers 10 different tastes of honey from 10 different hives on different days.
“Nectar is 50 per cent water, and honey is 6 per cent water, so the bees reduce the amount of water by passing it from tongue to tongue and fanning their wings. When it’s down to 6 per cent it’s ready to be harvested,” Easton says.
But if it’s too dry, the flowers won’t have nectar. The last two seasons have been an absolute disaster for Easton. He’s struggled to get 300 kilos from his hives.
Normally, he would harvest a tonne of honey.
“The bees have just been starving, they’ve had no food, and that is seriously reducing the size and the number of bees in the hive,” Easton says.
Elizabeth Frost is a bee expert – she’s a technical specialist for honeybees for NSW Department of Primary Industries,working out of Paterson. She’s concerned with the plight of beekeepers like Easton.
“At a recreational scale [ one to 10 hives], it’s a booming hobby for sure,” Frost says of the growing army of amateur beekeepers.
Frost says there are just over 6000 recreational beekeepers in NSW, operating 48,810 hives. Statewide, she says there are 800 registered beekeepers who have a business, with 240,842 hives.
The looming, more serious sustainable-beekeeping business question is centered around the eucalypt trees.
Canola and grain crops bring nectar and are quite resilient, but eucalyptus trees and their relatives are where the majority of Aussie beekeepers get their honey.
“Our most important native honey trees (Eucalyptus, Corymbia and Angophora species) have widely-ranging flowering cycles - they could be every two-three-five years. As a result of the drought, normal bloom cycles may be thrown off or trees might produce less nectar,” Frost says.
She says the current drought could affect beekeeping for years. Her department waived fees for apiary sites on public land for the next year, meaning beekeepers are not be required to pay their permit fee. Sadly, a majority of those sites will probably not be as productive.
She also understands the frustrations of beekeepers like Easton.
“There’s a number of pressures on beekeeping as a business, the main one for commercial beekeepers is access to floral resources, if there’s not enough flowers available for the beekeepers, the bees will be stressed or malnourished,” she says.
“Commercial operators might be operating 200 or 2000 hives. Food is at the forefront of the manager’s mind, so beekeepers in NSW may travel from 500 kilometres from their home base, ideally. In this drought it will probably be further than that. The nectar prospects are suffering in the western majority of the state. The coastal fringe is where a lot of commercial beekeepers are trying their luck.”
She believes that locally, the girls at Urban Hum are diversifying and have created a nice business for themselves.
Kelly Lees is the beekeeper from Urban Hum. She and her partner Anna Scobie have been operating for five years. The two did a short half-day beekeeping course eight years ago and got a hive, and it’s grown organically from then. They thought Newcastle would be a good spot for the urban model that had blossomed in other cities in Australia.
The couple have 110 hives to manage, and a seven-and-a-half-month-old baby. The two have an extraction space in Broadmeadow where they jar all the honey. The hives are spread over Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. Production varies with the season they get anywhere from 20 to 60 kilos per hive per year.
Not only do they harvest honey, but also they teach beekeeping workshops and sell European honeybees. They train people on how to take care of their own hives. More people are on the workshop list than Scobie and Lees can meet the needs of. Since they started, they’ve trained over 100 people.
“Urban areas [for honey] are a little bit different,” Lees says. “In urban areas you’re not relying on the uni-floral, you have a multi-floral environment. There’s [pretty much] always something flowering in urban areas. However the season before was poor. It’s impacted by the weather.”
Many of their hives are on other people’s properties in different suburbs. They have many hives in Mayfield, which seems to be quite the honey hub.
‘JUST A LITTLE HOBBY’
Neil Livingstone describes his Mayfield honey business as “just a little hobby”. He leaves his honey out the front of his house and locals leave him money. He lives at 24 Gregson Avenue, Mayfield West.
“I collect the honey in the Newcastle district, process it and sell a percentage from Mayfield on my front door. 98 per cent of people are honest and fair dinkum and they come and pay their $12 a kilo,” Livingstone says. “I just call it bush honey.”
He’s been selling honey for about 10 years and has 40 hives on properties in Morpeth, Duckenfield and Stockrington. He has six hives in Newcastle.
He also volunteers for the government, doing port surveillances hunting for the invasive Varroa mite.
Every 28 days he goes through six hives and 60,000 bees to look for anything suspicious. He runs tests and sends all the findings off to a lab in Orange.
“It’s in every country in the world except Australia, and the government wants to do its darndest to make sure it won’t come in. If it sticks it head in the door we need to knock it,” he says. “All over Australia people are [looking for] it. Newcastle’s one of the biggest ports; that worries us.”
All of the beekeepers are aware of various pests. The invasive hive beetle has made it to Australia and caused Easton trouble, and Lees is prepared for the worst with the Varroa.
“It got in in the port of Melbourne but destroyed before it made landfall. Most people are saying it’s when, not if,” Lees says. “It will probably knock some beekeepers out of the industry because it’s pretty tough. They are getting colonies in the States that are resistant to it. It’ll be natural selection. Ultimately it will lead to stronger stocks of bees.”
Healthy bees in Australia equal healthy residents.
It’s a beautiful natural thing for people like DiNatale to dole out to her family, and it’s supported by local markets and suppliers like Organic Feast, Your Food Collective, Local Crop and many more.
Smaller suppliers like these are enthusiastic about both the taste and the health benefits of unadulterated honey.
Livingstone has an easy trick for anyone to test the pureness of their honey.
“Put your spoon in the honey get a spoon full, lift it up turn it over and watch how long it takes to run off. If it takes a long time that’s good honey. If it’s like water that’s the adulterated one. The faster it runs the more rubbish it is,” Livingstone says.
Put your spoon in the honey get a spoon full, lift it up turn it over and watch how long it takes to run off. If it takes a long time that’s good honey. If it’s like water that’s the adulterated one. The faster it runs the more rubbish it is.Beekeeper Neil Livingstone
And of course even when the honey is produced in Australia some methods of treatment are better than others. Urban Hum produces raw and creamed honey. None of it is heat treated because that substantially reduces the many medical benefits.
DiNatale says her mum used medicinal honey to put on her arthritis wounds.
Easton has honey first thing in the morning and it keeps him going. The 74-year-old works seven days a week and doesn’t take any medication. He says good honey can “clean out your circulation system.”
He also sells medically activated honey from Leptus laburnum trees. This honey that has been tested in a lab for its effectiveness in killing the Golden Staph bacterial infection.
“It’s actually the only food that contains every single amino acid,” Lees says of honey. “Raw honey is antibacterial and antimicrobial. So it’s really good for your gut health. It’s got enzymes, bioflavonoids, all of the goodness of the plant. Your body digests it slowly unlike a chocolate bar; it’s released into your blood slowly so you don’t get the crazy sugar high.
Easton also sells it in the granular form, and he reckons this is the best way to eat it.
“A teaspoon of raw honey every day is really good for you,” Lees says.
Anything that tastes that good can’t be bad for you,” DiNatale agrees.
“All things moderation,” she adds.