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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

“Beekeeping is Cool!”

With the dawning of a new millennium came the dawning of a hobby that for Carol Downer has led to hours in the beehives, a string of awards, contribution to her community, global travel, an eclectic collection of mementos and some friends for life. Maggie James spoke with the Auckland hobbyist beekeeper and caught up on 21 years of vast and varied connections to beekeeping.


On January 1 2000 a swarm of bees landed in a plum tree outside Carol Downer’s, Auckland window. Carol interprets this as a message for the new millennium - she’s meant to have bees!

Beekeeping has given Auckland hobbyist Carol Downer plenty to smile about over the years.

The second impetus for what is now more than two decades in the hives, was a friend with hobby hives of their own.

“I thought sitting with a glass of wine in the evening with friends, watching bees coming and going from the hive, was pretty awesome,” Carol says.

Later that year Carol joined the Auckland Beekeepers Club (ABC) and, when the hobbyist friend became a new parent, Carol inherited their full depth Langstroth hives. She also acquired top bar and Warre hives. Now, because she regularly teaches beekeeping through the club, Carol believes it’s important to be conversant with all these hive types.

“Primarily varroa treatments I use are organic and are all the sorts of organic treatment methods in Control of Varroa – A Guide for New Zealand Beekeepers [Goodwin & Taylor]. I have spent years being proactive trying all the organic treatments described in this book, but beekeepers don’t talk about these because they don’t know how to implement them. One of the beauties of being a hobbyist, is we have more time to play around with all the various methods,” Carol says.

“I requeen mainly with queen cells. I like the brood break and it does help with varroa control.”

That involves knocking the old queen on the head and introducing a queen cell. Cells are obtained from two different suppliers, some Carniolan, some Italian, and Carol enjoys observing the two different strains of bee.

With her bees living in paradise, on a smorgasbord of floral sources in sunny well sheltered Auckland apiaries, multifloral bulk and comb honey is produced. Carol estimates that, in recent seasons, honey production per hive has decreased 20-30kg and she puts this down to an increase in urban beekeeping, infill housing and planting for climate change. Examples being, cacti requiring little water, flowering briefly, not continuously and therefore not a major source of bee forage.

Carol observes that hobbyist beekeeping can differ from commercial operations in the manner in which management decisions are made. She calls herself a “bee-centred beekeeper”.

“My hive production is dependent on observing what the hive has a propensity to do. Is it producing copious amounts of pollen or propolis? Do things look good for cut comb production? Is a propolis mat or pollen trap required?”

Carol has been a regular recipient of the Auckland club’s Honey Shied for top club honey, and outstandingly, for five years she scooped the Supreme Honey Award at the Apiculture New Zealand National Honey Competition, much to the chagrin of some commercial beekeepers! She has the ability to identify her competitors, and what the judges look for, but for the last five years has decided not to enter.

A collection of honey awards won by Carol in the 2015-16 season, including the Auckland Beekeeping Club’s Honey Shield – which she has won seven times over.

Also an ardent photographer, the Auckland hobbyist beekeeper took home the Supreme Award at ApiNZ’s National Photo Competition on one occasion and has had several placings through the years, while also having won the wax block competition.

Auckland Beekeepers Club

When Carol joined in 2000 the ABC boasted 110 members. It since peaked at a whopping 750 and now has around 520 in its ranks. Her commitment to the club has included a five-year stint as president, plus over seven years as editor of the quarterly hard copy journal.

ABC have run masterclasses with Carol in how to prepare for honey shows, to some success, with the Club taking out the inter-club category frequently at the national honey competition.

Alongside ABC member Kim Kneijber (Authorised Person Level 2), the pair tutor a 16-hour ABC beginners’ beekeeping course. With Kim teaching practical management and Carol speaking to a range of issues: beekeeping legislation, biology, bee health, products of the hive, types of hives and equipment, plus positioning of hives. This is run either as an eight-week, night course, or a weekend Saturday and Sunday plus Monday night.

International and NZ conferences

Carol Downer, at Gormanston College, Ireland in 2014, with one of her favourite scientific presenters from the many conferences she has attended around the world – Tom Seeley.

The first beekeeping conference Carol attended was the National Beekeepers’ Conference, Dunedin 2004. Here Carol met a group of practical beekeepers, who inspired her to learn more. She says these people are still quite important to her – Frank and Mary-Ann Lindsay, and brothers Peter and John Berry.

“Frank is my go-to person, if I have a query on something complicated, such as bee biology. I still catch up with John on his stand at the Hastings farmers’ market. Other than ABC, these are the first people I met that I had a beekeeping relationship with,” she says.

Carol’s list of international conferences attended is suitably impressive. Until recently, since 2011 there has been one overseas meeting a year, from Apimondia in Melbourne 2008 then later France, and Canada, plus regularly to The Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Association, Annual Summer School at Gormanston College, near Dublin. Add to that, two trips to the biggest hobbyist conference in the United States, the Eastern Apicultural Society, as well as a visit to the Annual Convention – Central Sussex Beekeepers’ Association 2013 in England.

The 2013 Sussex event had a focus on bee-centred beekeeping on a biodynamic property, where one of the conversations was bee-centred versus conventional beekeeping. It had a positive profound effect on Carol’s beekeeping management.

“I have seen many of the world’s top beekeeping scientists speak and their presentations are excellent. I enjoy hearing different concepts, however here in New Zealand we also have good scientists, some of whom are outstanding speakers.”

Buckfast, black bees, bee bags & brooches

Carol’s trip to England included a visit to Buckfast Abbey, Devon, where the Benedictine Brothers no longer keep their bees and there is now no honey production. However, there is a large beekeeping educational department which includes an apiary run by two beekeepers.

“This visit was pretty cool and would be the highlight of my beekeeping career. The day included an amazing large butterfly and otter farm nearby, plus a steam train ride to the Abbey.

“I was expecting the bees to be calm and gentle in nature like the Buckfast bees I had met a few years ago when visiting a Cornish beekeeper. I don’t usually wear a bee suit, so declined the offer of one, but on host insistence I tucked it under my arm. Wandering along ho-hum to the apiary, suddenly… I was attacked by ruddy black, vicious, horrible, nasty, snarky bees!

“They were not the Buckfast bees of Brother Adam’s breeding, but the dark European honey bee, preferred by many beekeepers in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Apparently, there had been no Buckfast bees on site for many years and most UK populations today are imported Scandinavian stock lines.

“The wonderful Buckfast gift shop was also a major excuse to buy a bee bag for my small collection of exquisite hand bags. I also have a large eclectic collection of bee brooches and honey pots.”

So, while she holds a healthy collection of bee-themed mementos, it is undoubtedly the connections and knowledge gained through beekeeping – since that fateful swarm and the dawning of a new millennium – that Carol treasures most.

“There are all sorts of fabulous things happening all over the world in the beekeeping industry,” she says, adding, “and over the years I have met some real cool people.”


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