Having learnt the ropes of beekeeping on an organic farm in Wisconsin, USA, David Milne’s road to launching Blueskin Bay Honey in Otago is far from conventional. His is a business with “authenticity” of products at the core, from a range of honey varieties to skincare products utilising bee venom and beeswax. Maggie James ventured down the picturesque Otago coast road to explore this unique beekeeping story.
By Maggie James
Blueskin Bay, 25km north of Dunedin, is a charming location, where blue seawaters meet the green of the Otago countryside, so perhaps a fitting name for a business built on the ideal of “make the world a better place”. The motto recognises that consumers are demanding more authentic products, Milne says.
“If the world markets can look after the health of the honey bee and the environment, that’s number one, because that ensures food security,” he says, outlining his beekeeping motivations.
Authenticity is certainly a hot topic, with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2023 recently announced as “authentic”. The award gives annual recognition to a word that dominates searches on the dictionary’s website.
With this in mind, Milne and wife Dawn have developed a range of skincare products using only produce from their own hives. Bee venom, beeswax and honey are combined to create various skincare balms, plus they have their own honey range with varieties such as thyme, mānuka, kānuka and clover, and even honey-based salad dressings. It’s all sold locally via a shop in Dunedin and a weekend market, as well as online.
Lessons Learned Stateside
While the business might be very much locally Otago, Milne’s beekeeping skills were first learnt 25 years ago on another continent. In 1998, after graduating from Art School with a Diploma in Ceramics, he travelled from New Zealand to an organic farm producing melons and corn, near Madison, Wisconsin, in America’s Mid-west. There Milne launched into beekeeping with three hives of his own, and the following season had ten hives.
The state capital, Madison, hosts America’s largest producer-only farmers’ market, the twice-weekly Dane County Farmers’ Market. Milne’s experiences there still strongly influence the manufacture and presentation of Blueskin Bay Honey’s products today.
Wisconsin honey was packed in glass jars, as expected by the customer. This concept harks back to the pioneering days of glass manufacture, and Milne believes this to be environmentally friendly and thus has continued the concept with his honey packing. He places much emphasis on “raw” or non-pasteurised honey.
His hives were on the outskirts of urban Madison, and most of the migratory interstate hives were sent to north Wisconsin for pollination of massive areas of alfalfa (lucerne). While his was a non-migratory business, apparently the bulk of beehives in Wisconsin came in on semi-trailer trucks from California after almond and orange pollination to undertake cranberry pollination. Following that they moved off to apple pollination in Seattle on the north-west coast of the USA.
The practise in this area with non-migratory commercial hives was that all honey was harvested and, prior to heavy snowfalls, the hives starved. Whilst this management was draconian, it was the easiest to implement, with hives being repopulated in the spring with package bees from imports and most likely from varroa-free US states.
At the time a non-migratory operation in Wisconsin was considered large if it had 400 hives. Two full-depth brood boxes were preferred and honey harvested was linden, lime and basswood.
Milne also recalls the routine treatment for American foulbrood being the broad spectrum antibiotic Terramycin, administered in powdered (icing) sugar.
These days Milne produces his own queen bees at Blueskin Bay Honey, the daughters and granddaughters of Betta Bees stock, but while in Wisconsin there was no need to learn queen rearing skills. At the end of winter package bees arrived from Florida and Texas to rural Wisconsin and the Dadant supply house. Waiting for package bees here was an experience, Milne recalls, as a lot of the truly ‘hill-billy’ beekeepers would congregate.
With 12 hives for the 2003/04 season, the Kiwi followed the lead of some other US commercial beekeepers with a varroa management plan consisting of Apivar strips and garlic and powdered sugar shaken onto the hives – the latter a forerunner to alternate organic treatments he would later try in New Zealand after coming home in 2005.
“I returned to New Zealand and worked a year for Blair Dale at Dale Honey in Middlemarch, Otago,” Milne says.
“I was responsible for 1000 hives and this experience enabled me to become part of the local industry.”
The next year Milne was off to Dunedin to undertake a post graduate Diploma in Teaching for secondary schools, but he continued to keep bees and built up hive numbers until 2013, when the Blueskin Bay Honey brand was launched.
Putting some of his educational training to use, for a few years Milne undertook marking of extramural apiculture students who studied via Telford Rural Polytechnic.
In 2012 Varroa destructor appeared in Otago, which he found more tenacious than the Varroa jacobsini he observed in the US.
“We are guardians of the bees, so we do need to help with killing of mites. For control I sometimes use oxalic acid strips. With proprietary treatments my preference is Bayvarol and the two treatments are alternated,” Milne says.
Recently he has been trying something truly experimental.
“A couple of years ago, I came across a scientific paper documenting the effects of caffeine on arachnids. My thoughts were, if it works on eight legged spiders, hopefully it works on eight legged mites, in the same arachnid class. So, for the last two seasons, using 20 hives, I have been experimenting with caffeine powder fed in syrup patties. There appears to be a reduction in mite numbers.”
Milne also notes research in which honey bees prefer nectar with caffeine, above non caffeinated nectar! (Editor’s note: this research was detailed in ‘Gimme a Feeder of Joe’, August 2023).
Honey on the Hive
Last season, 2022-23, the Blueskin Bay honey crop was left on the hives, with Milne deeming the cost of harvest not worthwhile alongside the value returned. Consequently, the hives are now in great condition, he says.
“A major factor for the decision was that in 2023 my wife Dawn completed her civil engineering degree at Otago University and so leaving the honey crop on provided time for me to look after our primary school aged children, Max and Abby. It was a no brainer,” Milne says.
When he does need honey for his label, Milne uses contractors – Strathdale Honey for extraction and Parakore Honey in Mosgiel for packing into glass jars.
When queried about glass breakages on the packing line, or in storage, this has not been an issue for Milne, with nil incidents. Packed honey is placed on a pallet, in a specialised cardboard box, then pallets stacked. If necessary, these can then be sent to Mainfreight and sit in storage.
While the Blueskin Bay Honey Company began as an online selling business, they have since opened their Dunedin retail store.
“Basically, we needed room for storage for our online business. Post Covid there were plenty of empty retail and warehouse spaces available, which consequently led to us opening our store in Stuart Street, Dunedin CBD.”
The shop is well located. Foot traffic comes from the nearby Octagon bus terminus and it is situated handy to their other outlet, the Otago Farmers Market. 50 weeks of the year, this large market is held in the carpark of the historic Dunedin Railway Station. It attracts both locals and passengers from cruise ships which dock nearby.
“In travesty great opportunities are created,” Milne believes, and that could apply to apiculture’s industry representation he says. The Otago beekeeper would like to see an industry organisation using good creative networking to bring industry participants together. He believes there is no cohesion in the apiculture industry, and that something broken requires an amazing approach to repair.
“New Zealand does have some well-informed helpful specialist people, such as the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. I would like to see a national honey market board, that beekeepers automatically get a share in for one to two years for free at their setup, then they pay a subscription. This organisation would be charged with developing sales channels and product ideas,” he suggests.
“If beekeepers can get a good market rate for honey, plus produce value added products, they would benefit twice and the cost of production would be well covered. The organisation marketing board would buy at a good rate. The Board would be skilled, encouraging value added products and sales, selling to the world, with profit back to shareholders.”
Looking at world trends, Milne sees the value of honey increasing. New Zealand produced honey has a clean, green edge and food shortages are predicted.
Like many commercial beekeepers, he says his business is hindered by undue compliance costs.
“Our productivity, is paying for expensive bureaucrats, earning more than beekeepers,” Milne says, adding “and the value of their productivity is questionable”.
To discuss any aspect of this story with David Milne email email@example.com