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26Jul

Building a sweet legacy in the high country

Building a sweet legacy in the high country
Words by Richard Rennie, Image by Amy Piper

Three years ago, Ben gave up a 16 year career flying helicopters in New Zealand, Asia and Australia to return back to Canterbury and founded Mees Bees NZ Limited, a honey business focussing on producing a high quality alpine honey in a sustainable, family focused way that benefits the environment, the farmers, and the community they work in.

Ben has harboured a lifetime interest in bees, having done some work when he was much younger with a beekeeper, and he retained that interest even while spending plenty of time himself airborne in his professional career as a chopper pilot.

The couple spent time in Australia, living in Perth where Leah was a nurse and Ben flew helicopters.

But after the birth of their two sons Huey and Thomas, they decided they wanted to return home to their rural roots, to be closer to family and friends.  For Leah home was Clinton in South Otago, and for Ben Mount Hutt.

The couple had made the difficult juggle to move back, with Ben continuing to fly out of Perth on a two weeks on, two weeks off roster while Leah came back with the boys.

“We had always known we wanted to do something for ourselves, and start a business of our own and looked at a few options,” says Leah.

Before Ben had come back permanently they purchased four experimental hives, and it seemed that business would be heading down the apiculture pathway.

To get established Ben called on the help of local long-time beekeeper John Syme. For John, helping Ben out with the bees has proven to be something of an arc back to where he came from.

“John and John’s father were family friends of my grandfather, and our family bought the Symes’ farm which originally had their beekeeping operation upon it. John’s property now neighbours my parents’ farm, so when we bought those initial four hives, John was very keen to help us and teach us what he knew.”

At 76 John is still extremely active, packing in plenty of 12-hour days moving hives and checking honey frames within them, with a keen eye for what healthy hives should look like, and helping Ben and Leah identify issues before they become problems.

“John may not have had to deal with varroa when he was beekeeping in his younger years, but he has dealt with almost every other health issue a hive can have, and he’s been vital for helping us learn more about what to look for, and how to deal with it,” says Ben.

The company in its full form really kicked off when they bought 300 hives from a reputable Southland beekeeper in 2015, with Leah continuing to juggle the business and family while Ben finished his last year of flying in Australia.

The humble shipping container on Ben’s parents’ farm they bought to work out of soon became too small, requiring more space and storage and in later 2016 they expanded into Symes’ Aperies former honey shed at Staveley that needed time and investment to bring it up to scratch.

Their upgrading included installing their own Crystech honey extracting plant to give them more control over the quality and consistency of the honey batches as they began to market retail pots of it through Canterbury.

The couple have a long held view that they will not be caught up in expanding too fast, nor be caught in the “Manuka fever” that has swept through the industry in the last couple of years.

“Manuka is only a small part of what we harvest from our hives, and our focus is on Alpine Clover honey, and Honey Dew honey - they are quite different in their own way, with the Alpine Clover’s taste quite distinct from the typical clover honey you will find,” says Ben.

The honey types are not the high value of Manuka, but are establishing their own niche among the keen supporters of their honey, many who compare it to the “honey they used to have when they were kids.”

The couple work hard to cultivate the distinctive types. Working with John, they position hives through the south side of the Rakaia gorge up to Double Hill Station at the top of the gorge, and around the foot hills to Arrowsmith Station on the Ashburton River. Here they capture the unique alpine clover nectar.

“It’s somewhere a lot of beekeepers in their rush to Manuka have shied away from, it’s more remote and you have to work hard to move the hives for winter, where we take them down to private farmland in the beech forests near Mt Hutt and Staveley for pre-wintering.”

The operation also aims to keep the hives fed naturally, with only a small amount of sugar offered early in the season to stimulate the hives’ pre-nectar flow.

Being a local, Ben’s long-time family contacts play a big part in helping with successful hive placement. The locals whose properties he puts the hives on know him well.

The entire operation is built on a relationship of trust with landowners, an element that has been lost in some cases as the industry has clamoured to get more hives in more places to capitalise on the Manuka gold rush.

“It’s a good relationship. They provide the sites for our hives and we provide the pollinators for their clover.”

Meantime the catchment between the Rakaia and Ashburton rivers lends itself well to their Southern Alps Honey brand, putting them closer than any other beekeeping business to the mountains themselves.

Today the couple oversee 1,200 hives and their work placing the hives in beech forests also includes working hard to try and reduce resident wasp populations, by far the biggest threat to bees, and the greatest biomass of species in the forests.

“We have been using Vespex bait which is very effective, but to really deal to greater numbers we would need more baiting from DoC on its adjoining land.”

At a time when New Zealand food producers are told to focus on the “story” behind their food, the Mees have woven much into the background of their honey products.

“A lot of the locals told us they wanted John’s honey back when we started putting it on the shelf, and we are told ours tastes like his did. We try to keep our approach simple and close to traditional methods – beekeeping is one thing, but processing honey well, that is another skill entirely we are also learning.”

Today Southern Alps Honey is sold through the Ruralco Farm Supplies stores, the Netherby butcher in Ashburton and Fox Store in Fox Glacier, with a small amount also sold through word of mouth locally.

“Having our own plant means we can now oversee every step ensuring the frames we put in have quality honey on them and are from the source they need to be from.”

The couple also produce a multi-floral honey that includes a blend of the two main types, along with hints of high country matagouri, lupin and viper’s bugloss (blue weed). Hints of kanuka, manuka, flax, kowhai can also be found in them. This season they also produced a Manuka multi-floral honey.

The honey dew type has a reputation in Asia for its healthy benefits, being high in antioxidants, and the couple have a Japanese client who regularly stops by to stock up his shelves with the variety.

But the Mees are not overly committed to large volume exporting at this stage, and are enjoying taking a low key, organic approach to the business’s growth working alongside John.

“John has always said if we wanted to go larger scale retail, you need to have two years stock on hand to allow for the ups and downs in seasonal production. So for us our focus has remained on small scale retail and the rest on bulk sales for now.”

To keep the business running smoothly the Mees have established a tight group of workers whose routine fits in well with the business’s.

Five local mums and a farmer work from 9.30 to 3.00pm in the extraction and packing plant, providing them with valuable work and social contact in a region where part time jobs are not always so accommodating.

Out in the field beekeeping is heavy, tough work. Every hive needs to be opened and inspected to understand what is happening with the colony and for Ben that hands on inspection is a key reason why he does not want to expand too soon.

“You always run the risk you end up more manager than beekeeper, and that is something I really did not give up my flying career to do!”

Over summer when the honey is in full flow, the honey boxes can weigh up to 35kg, and days are long within the confines of a sweltering beekeeping suit.

They have also recently employed an assistant to work in the field with Ben and Leah.

Courtenay Petrie is an ex high country famer with an interest in bees and keen to build on that interest. For Ben it is ideal having someone with some “farm sense” working in the business.

“They appreciate things like shutting gates and watching out for stock in the field, but they also have a feel for the weather and what can stress animals, including bees – really you are as much a farmer as you are a beekeeper when it comes to running hives.”

Leah is particularly excited about their next step in hive management over the next couple of years. Working with John on a queen breeding operation they are hoping to “re-queen” the hives twice a year to ensure good hive vitality and health. They are also going to double queen hives from next year.

“It is an old technique, and not one that you see used much, but it is like having a twin engine helicopter, if one starts to fail you still have another to rely upon. There are only a couple of beekeepers in Canterbury that actually do it nowadays, and it is a bit of an art form to do well.”

The New Zealand bee population is in a healthy state today, with the country approaching almost 900,000 hives. Ben and Leah have some hard earned advice for anyone considering getting some hives of their own.

“We suggest you get some training first, and be mentored by someone who is already established, or just get your local beekeeper to put some hives on your farm. It is also important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy hives, as this can be disastrous for neighbouring beekeepers hives if disease spreads.”

“There is definitely more to beekeeping than many people believe, so you need to do your homework before purchasing hives,” says Leah.

This committed couple continue to enjoy learning from one of the best, investing their time building a strong and sustainable bee-keeping business providing opportunities for locals and the next generation who already enjoy following Mum and Dad in their own junior sized beekeeper suits.

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