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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Bees Keeping Olivia Young “In Every Way” at 89


At 90 years-of-age, how many beehives do you plan to keep? Auckland Beekeepers Club (ABC) life member and 89-year-old Olivia Sheehan can answer that question with confidence – she still plans to have her five! We caught up with the beekeeping stalwart to find out what motivates her to keep popping the lid on those hives, how her relationship with the local club has grown through the years, and how she has gone from 1960s California to an idyllic home in manuka and pohutukawa clad ranges.

"I have done a hell of a lot in my life," Sheehan says of a journey which began in Maryland, USA, 1933, but only saw her enter retirement this year.

“I love it,” she says of her career as a mental health nurse, which she continued upon reaching New Zealand’s shores in 1968.

“I'm really, really, really sorry I gave it up.”

Despite her advancing years, she’s not hurrying to put herself in a similarly regretful situation when it comes to her bees though. Her five hives will stay on her Karekare property, a bush clad hillside overlooking Auckland’s Piha beach. She has called the spot home for most of her 54 years in New Zealand and her hives have done the same since Sheehan first dived into beekeeping in 1986.

At that time she decided she needed a hobby to dedicate herself to – “something else to do on the weekend other than cut the bush back”. A story in the local newspaper caught her eye.

Olivia Sheehan, 89 years-old, still beekeeping and still giving back to the Auckland Beekeepers Club. Seen here giving a talk on preparing cut comb honey for presents at Christmas time last year. Photo: Carol Downer.

“There was a beekeeper on one side, an elderly couple with a white house, white car and white washing on the other side,” Sheehan explains, 37 years on.

“They were suing him because of all the little brown spots on their washing, white house and white clothes. So, I rang him and said, ‘you need to get rid of some hives’. He was not amused.”

While that deal never got off the ground, she soon found a local beekeeper willing to part with a hive.

“I wrestled it up to my section, which is quite steep, and next morning I opened it up and they came out all over me. I thought, ‘hmmm I need to know a bit more about this’. So, I asked somebody where I was working and they said, ‘come to the club’. So, I did.”

Not only was she glad to have joined the club – with members providing a wealth of knowledge for a fledgling beekeeper – but the club has benefitted from the now 89-year-old’s contribution. Right from when she first joined she has had the role of maintaining the membership journal and has served many years on the club committee. The octogenarian was awarded her life membership “a few years ago”.

Sheehan credits long-time club member Dennis Waite as an influential mentor, while a most enjoyable part of her role with the club is to welcome members, new and old, to club gatherings.

… Octogenarian beekeeper Olivia Sheehan prepares to crack into her five beehives at her bush-clad Auckland property, something she has been doing for 36 years.

“I've welcomed all the people that have come in. I know a lot of them. I always say ‘how are you and how are your bees?’ and they tell me.”

A self-confessed ‘people-person’, the role has suited her down to the ground, much like her long career as a community mental-health nurse.

While certain tasks in the hives provide their challenges at her age, it is the support of the club and its members that is now paying her back for her contributions.

“I do have a helper. I taught him and his son about beekeeping, maybe 15 years ago at least. He went to the club and couldn't really get it sorted out. So, I said, 'well come to my place and I'll teach both of you’. So, I did and now he and his now grown-up son help me out."

At one point Sheehan kept as many as 11 hives, but alongside her nursing work it became too much. Now her five hives keep her young in every way she says.

“I love working with them. I love watching them. They don't love me. I don't buy queens and I let them do it naturally. So, I have bush bees and because I live in the bush, they do a fantastic job," Sheehan explains.

That “fantastic job” resulted in the top prize in the hobbyist section of the national honey awards in 2011, for her Karekare manuka honey.

“Watching bees is like a meditation, it's very calming. They're busy. I'm not. I'm just watching,” she explains.

As if she was not busy enough for someone knocking on the door of 90, Sheehan also teaches yoga, so knows a thing or two about meditation.

Previous to landing in New Zealand she had spent a period in California in the 1960s and while she says “I wouldn’t have thought so” to the implication she might have a bit of the hippy vibe of that era, it has certainly been an interesting journey so far. The trip to New Zealand itself was amongst a crew of five on a South Pacific island-hopping yacht in 1968, before falling in love with the country she has called home ever since. Her travel has continued though and Sheehan says she has visited both Antarctica and the Artic Circle, “and about 100 countries in-between”.

Despite having seen many sights, her home in the western edge of the Waitakere ranges overlooking the sea and nestled amongst 150-year-old pohutukawas, holds a special place for Sheehan. It will be her home for a while yet, and her bees too.

“I can't see any reason to stop beekeeping,” she says, adding, “If I can climb the hills that are around here when I'm 90 or 92 or whatever, I'm going to keep bees."



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