On a sunny spring day I met with John, aged 82 years, and wife Daphne Syme at the Staveley café in a picturesque farming corner of the world, tucked under Mount Somers, Mid Canterbury. We chatted about John’s genealogy, including his forbearer’s interest in bees, the inception of Symes Apiaries, and its nearly 80-year history until sale, as well as delving into his extensive engineering skills utilised for the beekeeping industry. John Syme appears to have not retired!
John Syme spent all his working life as a beekeeper, to which he also incorporated his self-taught engineering skills and great ability to mentally record engineering details. These days he is nearing 20 years removed from full-time beekeeping, after Symes Apiaries sold their hives to Midlands Apiaries in 2006. Since then he has mentored Ben and Leah Mee, Southern Alps Honey, and at times still goes and works a day or so with the Mees.
In their hay day of beekeeping the Symes kept up to 2200 hives, after taking over 700 hives from John’s parents in the 1960s. They built up numbers to 2000 hives in their first season, at a time when less hive competition and good sites made such growth possible.
Through the decades there were some challenging times, before partnering up with their daughter and son-in-law James and Joanne Callaghan in the early 2000s. Then came the sale to Midlands, which involved John and James managing the hives during a six-year transition period. These days the Callaghans work the family property at Staveley and, at times, James is still an advisor to Midlands, and even hands on in the hives if required.
That’s how it is now, but there is a long beekeeping history behind Symes Apiaries, and even longer in the bloodline, going back to one of the South Island’s earliest apiarists.
John Syme’s long beekeeping career shouldn’t come as a surprise, with his – count them – great, great, great grandfather William Bayley Bray Snr (WBB Snr) an avid beekeeper who in 1861 pencilled detailed honey bee anatomy via a microscope – drawings that still exist.
It could well have been from this distant grandfather from which Syme inherited a genetic disposition to engineering and bees. WBB Snr had worked for Robert Stephenson in train design and rail planning in the UK, Egypt, and Italy before arriving in Lyttleton in 1851, with his wife and four children. Planning retirement as a New Zealand farmer, WBB Snr apparently was drawn back to employment in the mid-1850s when his advice on the build of the Lyttelton-Heathcote Valley rail tunnel, still in use today, was sought.
The connection to apiculture continued through the years and under the Apiaries Act 1908 William Bayley Bray Jnr (grandson of WBB Snr) was appointed one of two first South Island apiary inspectors with the Department of Agriculture. Later, in 1910, WB Bray Jnr was one of two founders of Airborne Honey.
WBB Jnr believed the Symes farming family needed to diversify their income. He supplied a caught swarm for his great nephew Ivan (brother or John), teaching the family how to care for the bees.
Then, amid the Great Depression the Syme family were on the home farm in Staveley, without work for their men, but farmers still needed bees. So, in 1937, Reginald Syme, father of John, purchased 300 hives from Charlie Pope, the president of the National Beekeepers’ Association. The Symes travelled to Taylor Stream, Roxburgh, Otago to uplift the hives, which were all in a large circle in one paddock awaiting pickup. Thus, Symes Apiaries was born.
The family undertook small seed cropping production, plus pollination of linseed, red clover and sometimes oat crops, along with honey production. Reg built up to 700 hives and purchased the Staveley dairy factory, converting it to the first Symes honey house.
John was the oldest of five children; one of three sons. The other boys took on the family farm and John, by default, became a beekeeper. He says he was happy about the career, working with his father, before eventually taking over the beekeeping business with wife Daphne in the late 1960s.
These days John and Daphne’s clan comprises three daughters, one son, three granddaughters, ten grandsons, and nine great-grandchildren!
In the 1970s the couple built a 7000sq foot (650m2) honey house on their Staveley property, regarded at the time as one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. These days, the building is still in mint condition and operating with an RMP.
With up to 2200 hives, spread across the Canterbury foothills and throughout the Ashburton district, management required three full-time staff, plus Daphne, working seven days a week for the season, including extraction. There was no varroa, very little American foulbrood (AFB), and minimal chalkbrood. Requeening was undertaken in spring, requiring 4000 cells produced by Richard Bensemann at Leeston, for use in double-queened hives. Hives were two full-depth brood boxes with nine frames, honey supers full-depth with eight frames.
In those days of the ‘60s and ‘70s honey yields were good and full supers held 30kg of honey, with each hive yielding two boxes each of honey dew and clover. Dew and clover supers were kept separate to achieve low-colour, high export-grade, monofloral clover honey.
There were no honey drums in those days, with 60lb (27kg) tins used instead. Clover honey was sold in tins to Airborne Honey in Leeston or Hollands at Pleasant Point. Honey drums made an appearance in the early 1970s.
A Game Changer
Beech dew, a major yielder in the beech forests of the Canterbury foothills, was not worth much. However, from the 1970s onwards the Symes got onto an amazing game changer. Combining with two North Canterbury beekeepers and dew producers, Trevor Cattermole and Steve Bozzi, the trio struck a deal to export 100 tonne per season, in honey drums, to Germany. The deal coming through Christchurch beekeeping supplier Kevin Ecroyd.
It was a boon for Symes Apiaries. For the first time they were promptly paid with one honey cheque, instead of the usual drip feed over months. Their contribution to the consignment ranged from 40 tonne of honey dew in a good year, to around 20 tonnes in a poor yielding season when the climate was not optimal and rain washed dew off the trees.
Pollination contracts, which gradually increased over the years, were mainly carrots, fodder beet and radish.
Like any long-running beekeeping business Symes Apiaries encountered AFB.
“At times we did have our share of AFB, but never epidemic,” Syme explains as our chat continues.
As part of their AFB strategy, in good yielding seasons drawn out white comb produced on clover crops was added to brood nests.
“In 2000 hives we might find 20, and for that reason we were always fussy where our sites were and who our beekeeping neighbours were. We did get on top of this and for a period of 12 years we were zero AFB. I suspect that half the hives we burnt with AFB were sacrificial. It was just too risky with our hive numbers to hang onto them. These days, if in doubt, beekeepers can get hives tested.”
Staff – from Canterbury to Israel
Of course managing AFB is the job of the beekeepers in the hives and Symes Apiaries believed that the most efficient management to care for their hive health, productivity and lessen the likelihood of failure was with hands-on management from the owners, and family.
“We were a successful intergenerational family business, because we employed outside labour as little as possible, and when we did it was generally locals well known to us,” Syme says.
There were some international employees too though. The opening of the beech honey dew market to Germany led to contact with German university students, who had previous beekeeping interests and who would travel to Symes Apiaries to work during the northern hemisphere winter. Then there was the Israeli connection…
In the early 1990s the Symes received a phone call from the Department of Agriculture enquiring if they would be interested in taking on two Israeli women, Vered Weiss and Doreet Najman who had been working in the North Island auditing beehives for the kiwifruit industry. Both had studied apiculture at university in Israel and would prove good hires.
The Israelis returned to their homeland, Najman subsequently obtaining a PhD in all aspects of pollination, then working at a United States university. In the 1990s John and Daphne visited the women in Israel, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development arranged for their leading government official of apiculture to accompany the Symes whilst in the Middle-Eastern nation.
Their international beekeeping sojourns were not limited to that trip though and at the Second Australian International Bee Congress 1988, on the Gold Coast, John and Daphne were invited to deliver their philosophy on “Using Modern Technology and Equipment in the Honey Industry to Minimise Workload and Maximise Use of Unskilled Labour”. Public speaking is not John’s forte, so the duty fell to Daphne to take the auditorium floor, speaking without any of the gadgets used to assist in presentations today.
The invitation came off the back of the Symes successful engineering ingenuity and sideline business, which saw them manufacturer a range of world leading innovative beekeeping equipment through their working years, from truck cranes to honey house machinery. That’s a story in itself though, which I look forward to telling next month.
If you wish discuss any aspect of this story with John and Daphne Syme, email: email@example.com
Note: Thanks to Peter Bray and Nick Wallingford in helping verify historic details.