Hive mentality

03:38, Sep 03 2011
FEEL THE BUZZ: Young beekeeper Quinn Straker says, "I like getting my veil on and smoking up, it's fun."
FEEL THE BUZZ: Young beekeeper Quinn Straker says, "I like getting my veil on and smoking up, it's fun."

Most landlords would not allow tenants to have 20,000 pets. "We're not allowed dogs here," Quinn Straker, 8, says as she spoons frozen peas from her cereal bowl. "But our landlord is fine with the bees."

Quinn is talking about the two beehives - home to about 20,000 bees - she has kept for the past year.

The hives are at the back of her Island Bay home, as far away from the neighbours as possible.

KING BEE: Jacob De Ruiter has kept bees for more than 20 years and believes they thrive best when left alone.
KING BEE: Jacob De Ruiter has kept bees for more than 20 years and believes they thrive best when left alone.

"They can leave a nasty result," Quinn says, referring to bee droppings on freshly washed laundry. That's why urban beekeepers are encouraged to position their hives with entry and exit points directing the flight path away from washing lines.

Not that the neighbours are complaining. Jars of the Strakers' first honey harvest were gifted around the neighbourhood.

"My friends come back and say, 'I like your honey, can I have some more?' and we give them honey on a teaspoon."

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And the bees have helped pollinate gardens, too. "Last year we had that apple tree but it didn't give us any apples - because we didn't have any bees - but when we got the beehive, it started giving us apples."

An annual harvest of 30 to 40 kilograms of honey is possible from a strong hive.

Quinn enjoys putting on her protective gear, and subduing the bees with smoke, to reap the sweet nectar. "I like getting my veil on and smoking up, it's fun."

Quinn's mum, Jacinta, learnt about beekeeping at the Wellington Beekeepers Association.

Meetings are held on the first Wednesday of the month, apart from January, at the Johnsonville Community Centre.

The association helps new members start a hive and its membership numbers are increasing.

"The hives are about $150, the bees about $120," says Jacinta, 32, a Wellington City Council analyst. "The veils are about $20 and I just got some red overalls from the op shop. The bees don't like blue supposedly, but red's OK."

Although Jacinta doesn't like honey, she enjoys teaching her daughter hands-on about the bees' life cycle and plant pollination.

Jacinta learnt quickly that a bees' life cycle could be shortened if the varroa mite parasite found its way into the hive. "The bees at the front of the hive were crawling around without any wings - they'd been a bit chomped," Jacinta says.

"We ended up having pretty bad varroa but the hive survived."

And Jacinta's been stung twice since owning the hives.

"I haven't been stung by a bee," Quinn adds, finishing the last spoonful of peas, "but I have by a wasp - it wasn't pleasant."

Over the hill, Houghton Bay beekeeper and mead-maker Jacob De Ruiter, who has kept bees for more than 20 years, believes bees thrive when left alone.

A bee sting is a sign of a strong hive, says the laidback 59-year-old. "Every time you go through the hive and smoke them, you really upset them. A lot of bees will try and attack you to defend the hive so you're losing 1000 to 2000 bees, maybe more in the process. It's like a kamikaze - it's do or die. If they want to sting you, it means they are strong. If they are weak they lose their vigour."

Although De Ruiter is organically minded, he uses Apistan strips - a chemical treatment for the destructive varroa mite - after the honey harvest from pohutukawa flowers.

"I've lost eight hives through varroa ... and when all of your hives die on you it's a hell of a blow. It takes a while to build up again. I don't want to go through that again."

While brewing a cuppa he mentions that beekeeping was almost foolproof before the varroa's unexplained introduction into New Zealand in 2000.

"Do you have honey in your tea?" he asks. De Ruiter uses honey as both a sugar replacement and an antiseptic.

"If I have a burn or wound, I just put a band-aid with honey on it and because there is no infection it heals very quickly."

He also takes propolis - a resinous mixture that bees collect from tree buds and sap flows - from the hive and uses it as medicine.

"Propolis is the waxy black stuff inside the hive. I have found, when you feel a fever coming on, you chew this, and it gives you immunity to disease and sickness. I can't remember the last time I had a cold or was sick.

"I really believe that propolis and honey are a preventative way to stay strong and healthy."

Little traps at the entry of his hives collect pollen, which he sprinkles on his muesli as a protein supplement.

"It's really interesting when you are harvesting pollen because during the spring you get all these different flowers that come out, and all the different coloured pollens: purples, oranges, yellows, browns ... it's actually very pretty - a kaleidoscope."

De Ruiter also makes mead, or honey wine, commercially in a Victorian farm cottage at the front of his property.

The age-old elixir is believed to have an aphrodisiac quality that aids fertility, virility and passion. In parts of Europe, a month's worth of mead was given to newlyweds to ensure fertility and happiness, hence the term honeymoon.

But De Ruiter says the public's lack of knowledge on the benefits of mead makes it a hard product to sell.

Still, the general attraction to the industrious insects and their byproducts is creating a buzz in the capital. Wellington Beekeepers Association spokesman John Burnet says the group has 180 members.

"It's quite a dramatic increase, as two years ago it would have been a third of that number.

"Back then we were a club of old men but we were pleasantly surprised that women and younger people are making up the new member numbers."

The Dominion Post