The many gifts of bees

Hundreds of bees tend to the hive. Photo: Georgia Minkhorst.

Nestled among orchards in the depths of Whakamarama, the bees hum, the honey flows in glistening gold, and mead warms the cockles of your heart.

The Weekend Sun was lucky enough to recently join a bee-themed adventure and learn all about the honey harvest at Whakamarama’s Bee First Apiaries.

Run by partners Craig Lovell and Maree Paynter – this hardworking, hands-on duo gave us bee enthusiasts the usual safety chats, making sure we weren’t allergically challenged, before getting us kitted up in beekeeping suits.

Craig says he’s always had an affinity for bees and loves being around them, among Bee First’s 800 hives.

“It’s a chill zone when you’re in with the bees,” says Craig. “It’s pretty quiet, pretty relaxing.

“It’s just them and us, or us and them – depending which side of the hive you’re standing.”

Funky pheromones

Getting a first-hand look at the hives – Maree and Craig taught us all sorts.

From wasps eating baby bees or ‘brood’, drone bees being kicked out of the hive once they’ve served their reproductive purposes with the queen, to bees’ next level communication skills where they use pheromones to know where the queen is at all times.

The Weekend Sun reporter Georgia Minkhorst getting amongst the happy hive. Photo: Georgia Minkhorst.

“If she [the queen] stops emitting pheromones, the colony will be in a distressed state and you’ll hear the whole hive – it’s called ‘roaring’.”

 Luckily, all the hives’ queens were in residence the day The Sun visited!

But one bee did manage to weasel its way into Craig’s bonnet, which he nonchalantly grabbed and tossed back out.

Bees are calmer than people often think, says Craig.

“People believe we have like actual killer bees in the country – hornets – that will hunt you down and sting you. We don’t.

“Bees are generally pretty docile unless you’re in their territory – in their hives.”

Taste testing

Hauling out some honey-packed frames, we shifted into the couple’s tasting room which smelt of refreshing peppermint – this helps to mask the honey’s fragrance from the bees.

Then we got to business, uncapping the honey using a special fork, and watching in awe as golden honey drizzled into the tray below.

Maree Paynter, uncapping the honey from the frame. Photo: Georgia Minkhorst.

Then the frames went into a metal barrel honey extractor, which spins the frames and flicks the honey out.

There were lots of “mmm’s” of approval as we tried our fill of this raw, unfiltered honey.

Yet it’s not this sweet nectar that keeps the money flowing in for Craig and Maree.

The pair mainly make their living through hiring out their hives to pollinate orchards in the Bay of Plenty.

“The backbone of our business is pollination work, so we do a lot of kiwifruit and avocado pollination.

“That’s what keeps us going.”

From October to December Craig and Maree are as busy as their bees, shifting their hives in the early morning and late at night when the bees aren’t flying.

“We’re loading them onto trucks in the dark and moving them into orchards in the dark.

“We’re feeding them every morning and then when they’re done in the orchard, we’re picking them up in the dark, taking them somewhere else and dropping them off.”

Traditional Mead

They’ve also delved into a delectable honey drink, and have been making their own mead.

Bee First Apiaries’ Traditional Mead went down a treat after learning about the hives. Photo: Georgia Minkhorst.

An ancient alcoholic beverage – the origins of mead trace back around 9000 years ago to Northern China, but the drink is popularly associated with Vikings.

“We were dabbling in it for quite a while with a lot of failures and some reasonable successes.

“It was just a pie in the sky thing five or six years ago and now it’s a real life little business,” says Craig.

I was lucky enough to try a glass or two and enjoyed its fruity, smooth and delicate flavour.

In winter Craig and Maree enjoy their mead like mulled wine, warming it and adding spices

like cinnamon. Yum!

Craig says their meadery – The Brewed Nest – is ‘Marie’s baby’.

“Any successes, any positive results we get from it is all credit to Marie.

“She’s the one that stuck to it because it’s been hard work for no return for a very long time, with not even anyone interested in this very old, foreign drink that not many people know about.”

That’s sure set to change!

The honey harvest experience with Bee First Apiaries is run in conjunction with Kitchen Takeover as part of the Flavours of Plenty Festival. There’s still sessions available this weekend.

Visit:  for event times and details.

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