A mile in the shoes of an apiarist
In the dark hours before dawn, Robin and Antonia O’Brien park their ute in a clearing in the World Heritage-listed wilderness near Strathgordon.
They’ve driven for more than two hours from Hobart, with a trailer-load of hives and bees towed behind them. Their beekeeping suits are on, even as they drive, in case of an accident.
Before the heat of the day arrives, stirring the bees to life, the husband-and-wife team from Wellington Apiary quickly unload the heavy hives, fanning them through the clearing in the leatherwood-loaded wilderness. As they pull foam stoppers from the hives’ opening, releasing the bees, and dash for the ute, the darkness begins to buzz angrily around them.
“Transporting hives is the most stressful part of the job,” Robin (pictured above) says. “It doesn’t matter how friendly your bees are, if you drop a hive or shake it around, they get angry and ready to have a go at something.”
Robin and Antonia have been running Wellington Apiary since 2009, coming to the industry by chance. “I was a nurse and feeling pretty burnt out with that,” Robin explains.
“A guy I worked with, his family were in cherries and apples, and he was complaining there was a shortage of bees for pollination each year.”
A week later, while out running, Robin passed a swarm of bees. It was a sign, he thought, and soon the couple’s Sandy Bay backyard was filled with hives.
Every December, they transport their hives into the south-west wilderness where they have two hive sites, each holding up to 30 hives and 1.5 million bees. The delivery is timed to coincide with the flowering of surrounding tea tree and then the golden summer bounty of leatherwood, which represents about 70 per cent of their production each year.
Within a couple of hours of their hives being placed, the bees are at work, making circling orientation flights to get their bearings and then harvesting the nectar.
In a week, each hive will yield around 10kg of liquid honey, with Wellington Apiary producing about 10 tonnes of honey each year – part of an annual Tasmanian production of 400 million tonnes approx. from 22,000 hives (2019 figures).
Each fortnight for the next two months, Robin and Antonia will return to the hives to collect and replace the boxes of honey inside them.
“That’s a simple job,” Antonia says. “A puff of smoke under the lid, lift the lid, put a box in. You don’t even have to wear gloves… because the bees are happy. If it’s a warm day and they’re busy, they barely notice you’re there.”
As they fill the ute with boxes of honey for the drive back to Hobart, where it will be creamed, bottled, labelled and delivered all by hand to more than 80 stockists around the state (as well as being sent interstate and abroad), the bees are stirring into a cloud around them.
“You’re surrounded by thousands of bees,” Antonia says. “It’s a black swarm; just bees everywhere. Then you get in the car, and there are bees all through it.”
It’s the Wellington Apiary office abuzz with activity.