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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

A Beekeeping Horror Story…


This month’s look Inside Pyramid Apiaries in Marlborough takes a satirical turn to the dark side writes owner-beekeeper Patrick Dawkins.

Well that’s less than ideal, with few other options and scores of boxes still to go in a day high-up in the bush…

The beekeeper’s day started about as well as they can, up before dawn he wiped the sleep from his eyes while chowing down his toast, sweetened with that literal nectar of nature – honey – and sided by a hot cup of ‘Joe’. Six slices of honey toast today. One must support the beekeeper…

Fuelled for the day’s activity of escaping as many honey supers as can be borne before the bees get too robby, or the beekeeper’s trusty flat-deck steed is depleted of ‘stickey’ boxes to under-super with, he heads to the shed to retrieve that ute. ‘Thanks yesterday me’ he mumbles to himself as he opens the door to the already-set-for-action vehicle, before turning the key and heading for the bush. Sun peaking over the hills and through his passenger window as the edifying tones of Radio New Zealand’s ‘Country Life’ transport him to Taihape, Balclutha and other such distinguished locations, he has no inclination of the horrors which await on this perilous off-road adventure…

He steps from the truck to his first apiary as the sun glints through the kānuka trees standing tall around the collective of beehives, stacked three, four and five boxes high. ‘Perfect-timing’ he thinks as the day slowly warms and the first honey bees poke their heads out to explore the morning light.

His mind turning to the scores of hives in the day’s work-plan, he takes a deep breath, grabs a hive tool from the driver’s-door pocket of the truck and starts the smoker. ‘We are all going to earn our keep today’ he tells his tools before unsuspectingly striking a match and blowing the contents of the smoker to a slight flame, then ember.

The hive-tool slides between the first two honey boxes with ease as it has done countless times before, then the pressure comes on. “Oh, difficult to crack are yee” he mutters to the hive and himself (long hours alone in the bush and the bees with depressing thoughts of honey prices can do funny things to a man’s mind…) “well that’s fine by me thankyou very much, there must be some honey here”. Then, bang, crackle, POP! The hive tool takes its turn to speak up, saying ‘no more!’ before snapping in two under the strain of yet another stack of boxes, giving up on a hard day’s yakka at the first hurdle.

“Hmmmm never done that before,” says the beekeeper as he surveys the results of his own brute strength, not unimpressed. ‘Argh yes, this hive tool. A free-bee, as it were, a give-away somewhere along the lines. Clearly its not made of the sternest steel. My top girl, hive-tool numero-uno must still be in the door pocket of the truck…’

His hand fossicks around the tool’s usual lodging place, to no avail. Standing alone in the bush scene the beekeeper’s mind flashes back to the workbench of his shed, back at base, where the cold steel implement sits having scraped down a stack of hive-mats some 12 hours prior (cue the camera panning out shot by shot to confer the vast distance between the inanimate but reliable hive tool and the apiary site high in the hills as the beekeeper falls to his knees, half a blade of useless steel in each hand ...)

“Noooooooooooo” and every living creature within ear shot scarpers from the desperate scene. That is all except the millions of hard-of-hearing bees who carry on unmoved.

After some time – minutes? hours? – trapped in the foetal position, sobbing at the thought of the shame in returning home, hours after initially departing, with no honey to his name, the beekeeper gasps. “The children,” he cries aloud “what will the children eat!?”. Then, that’s it…

“The children! I have the kids’ hive tool in the truck,” he mutters to himself. Gaining a renewed strength he bounds towards the vehicle and throws open the centre console, tossing queen cages, Posca pens and that secret loot of pie money, which the Mrs cant track, aside – it can’t save him now, only one thing can…

There it is, eight inches in length, curved at one end, a flat steel blade at the other, and replete with a block in the middle to stop an uncoordinated child’s hand from slipping to danger. He grasps the implement and holds it aloft as the sun glints on its redeeming blade. “You might be tiny, but today you shall be mighty” …


Anyway… turns out it wasn’t. If boxes are so stuck together a 10” hive tool snaps upon the strain, the kids’ tool ain’t much good to ya either. However, it also turns out that I keep a spare full-size hive-tool in the pocket of the passenger door for just such occasions. Unfortunately for me, that tool was also not of the strongest steel (I think the morale is probably something to do with buying quality equipment…).

The best of a bad bunch. One hive tool too snappy, another too small, the third? Workable, with some coercion.

The first attempt to crack a box saw about a 40° bend in the steel form. No worries though, I just flipped her over and pried the boxes apart by pushing against the bend. I thought for sure after enough of this method the flimsy tool’s life would go the way of the morning’s first weapon of choice, but it battled on all day and about 60 hives.

So initial horrors were ultimately averted and now at the end of February we have got around all our hives, escaped the honey, collected it, and have it off to our contract extractor, Rainbow Honey in Nelson. We await the return of our last batch of stickeys and the honey test results.

Marlborough is in the midst of a drought, with less than 50% of our usual rainfall having hit the ground since June. My rain gauge has seen but 23mm in December, 15mm in January and 14mm in February. Combine that with plenty of 25°c-plus and nor-west windy days and there is nary a flower to be seen in the pastures. The largely clear weather has made for decent flying conditions for bees though, so the crop is about average, despite the parched landscaped.

As you might imagine, with hive populations still near their season’s peak, it is getting robby. Our front-line autumn treatments for varroa are now in most of the hives before the bee populations drop off. Wish me luck for the next month keeping starvation and varroa at bay while bees become increasingly aggravated at our presence… I’m sure many of you know the feeling though.



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