• Maggie James

Claudine’s Colourful Career

These days Claudine McCormick supervises the laboratory in one of New Zealand’s biggest beekeeping operations, it’s been a long and varied career though. MAGGIE JAMES caught up with the Canadian-turned-Kiwi to get the story of how she went from hardware store worker in small town Canada to one of New Zealand’s most respected honey analysts, with some cultural education, heartache and ice skating in between.

In the summer of 1989 in the small agricultural town of Fisher Branch, Manitoba a young New Zealand beekeeper took up as queen bee rearer for Interlake Beekeeping, a decision that would have life-changing ramifications for both him and a Fisher Branch local – Claudine Obelnicki.

Richard Bensemann, then secretary of Canterbury Branch, of the National Beekeepers’ Association (NBA) had the heads up when the Branch received a letter from Interlake, seeking an experienced beekeeper. Bensemann, like many young Mid and South Canterbury beekeepers of his era, worked the season in New Zealand, followed by the northern hemisphere counter season in Canada. And, so it was, that he landed at the diverse Canadian beekeeping operation of Interlake and its three divisions: queen bee rearing, production of leafcutter bees to pollinate their alfalfa (lucerne) fodder crops, and crop production using their honey bee hives for pollination.

FIsher Branch, Manitoba, Canada, the home of Claudine Obelnicki until a chance meeting with a Kiwi beekeeper had her destined for a life and career in New Zealand.
Claudine McCormick at home in her expansive Southbridge, Canterbury, garden, filled with plenty of flowers to support the bees which have provided her a long career in honey analysis. Photo: Maggie James.

Meanwhile, Claudine Obelnicki, when not studying towards a science degree, worked at her parents’ hardware store. The store also sold gasoline and bulk fertilisers and at the weighbridge she mixed and monitored loads of fertiliser. Bensemann, arriving for a truckload, spied a nice young filly and Interlake’s bulk fertiliser bill rapidly escalated.

After three northern summers and much toing and froing around the world to Interlake and the hardware trucking bay from Bensemann, the pair married in Obelnicki’s hometown in June 1991. In August Claudine gained a science degree with botany major – flower structures, plant families, economic botany, and plants indigenous to Canada’s Prairie Provinces, from the University of Manitoba. It wasn’t long before the couple made for New Zealand though, with the newlyweds headed for Canterbury and the start of the southern beekeeping season for Richard.

Leaving Home

Immediately, 20-year-old Claudine, armed with a New Zealand Residency Visa, and Richard embarked on the long arduous flight: Winnipeg-Vancouver-Hawaii- Fiji- Auckland-Christchurch. This was not a holiday with island and country hopping flights and leisure stops, in those days it was the only available route, culminating at long last with a drive to Claudine’s new hometown, Ashburton, Mid Canterbury.

To the young Canadian, early 1990’s rural Ashburton was a major culture shock. Accustomed to central heating, Claudine had to learn how to light an open fire and keep it going. People drove on the wrong side of the road. Every time she hopped in the car to go somewhere; farmers kept waving at her. As farmers do!

Fortunately, the supportive close-knit beekeeping community in and around Ashburton enabled an easy settling in, with support from Geoff and Angela Bongard, Dougal (deceased) and Debbie McIntosh plus John and Daphne Syme. Leeston moral support included Peter and Veronica Bray, Barry Sheehan, plus Hantz brothers, Warren and Geoff. As a setup by Richard and Claudine at the New Zealand celebrations of their wedding, the reluctant Roger Bray was purposefully introduced to his now wife Linda.

Despite the welcoming environment, a part of Claudine still pined for snow, white Christmases and winter sports such as ice hockey and ice skating.

Part of the settling in saw Claudine secure her first job in New Zealand and further her “cultural education”, pouring pints at the Tinwald pub! It was a major embarrassment to tell her father and she thought it judicious to omit the explanation that it was a sports bar operating a TAB and, due to regular brawls, known locally as “The Flying Jug”. Her training consisted of being handed a racing industry pamphlet and told to memorise all betting jargon and terms … Welcome to New Zealand!

Settling In

It wasn’t long before a vacancy came up that would make better use of her qualifications, in the laboratory of local seed merchant Cropmark Seeds in Ashburton. Claudine turned her hand to analysing wheat and barley samples at harvest time, and outside of the season she found a role in the company’s accounts payable division. This arrangement suited Claudine well, having started learning bookkeeping at age ten in her father’s hardware store. Today, nearly 30 years on, Claudine still has her seed collection collated during her years at Cropmark.

In 1995 Claudine and Richard welcomed daughter Brittany, who would be followed in years to come by two more children, Monique and Lachlan. Thanks in part to their mother’s Canadian heritage, all the family became proficient competitive ice skaters, with many visits to the Christchurch ice rink and in winter Lake Ida, Porters Pass, where Richard was a highly able speed skater. Brittany would become a national representative, with her team winning bronze in synchronised skating at the Australian National Championships in 2014 and 2017. The Bensemann family regularly ice skated at the Staveley Ice Skating Company with “Pappa” John and Daphne Syme.

January 1997 saw Claudine change employer in what would be a fortunate move for her career, entering the honey industry as a honey sample analyst for Airborne Honey in Leeston where she worked for the next ten years.

While on a professional front her career was going places, personally Claudine was to face a major setback though.

Family Setback

Much to the shock of Leeston and Ashburton communities, in 2006 Claudine’s husband Richard died at a relatively young age, leaving Claudine isolated without family in New Zealand and with three young children. For Claudine it was never an option to return to family in Manitoba. Her children were Kiwi kids and at the time would not have coped with Canadian culture.

It was the beekeeping community which set the venue for Claudine to cross paths with Leeston fitter and welder John McCormick, when they met at local apiarists Wayne and Donna Sheehan’s beekeeping Christmas BBQ. In 2008 Claudine and John McCormick were married with Daphne Syme officiating and the couple, along with Claudine’s three children, moved to Southbridge.

In mid-2016, an 18 month change in work scenery saw Claudine take her skills further into the Mid Canterbury Plains and Gladfield Malt in Dunsandel. There she undertook sensory profiling analysis on 26 malt barley varietals for beer production. However, it soon became very apparent to Claudine she wanted to get back into what she really knew and the honey industry.

Laboratory Honey Analysis

When the role of laboratory supervisor at Midlands Apiaries in Ashburton came up in 2017 Claudine took the opportunity and it is there where she still plies her profession.

The work involves learning what attracts bees, and why, to a flower, along with what floral source they have visited and what plant the pollen is related to. This enables identification of the honey, along with the aroma and profile of the honey. The lab technician is pivotal in analysing and verifying honey samples.

“There are times on honey analysis when you just don’t know what the pollen is,” Claudine explains.

“Airborne had a lot of reference glass slides, and I added to this, creating a slide library, and often pollens were like those that I had studied from the Canadian Prairies.

“In the initial years of my honey analysis, there was not that much available on the internet in terms of plant references and seeds, etcetera. So, I often needed to ask the beekeeper what area the honey was harvested from. From the beekeeper’s description, I would consult my reference books and consider the predominant nectar bearing plants in the area.”

Pollen analysis of a honey varietal can vary regionally too, especially with the likes of clover honey generally produced from Waikato to Southland, Claudine explains.

“To be classed as a clover honey there must be a minimum pollen count of 45 percent. For a Mid Canterbury clover I would expect a hint of brassica. Around the Pendarves area, the addition of carrot. In North Canterbury, there is sometimes a bit of honey dew. Southland, I would expect a silky sweetness rolling on my tongue, and it might have a bit of kamahi. Waikato clover, a little bit darker containing lotus. So, I do need to visualise what I would expect to find in a sample and perceive the taste.”

It’s not just clover that regional variations can be detected in though.

“With kamahi from the Catlins or the West Coast, I would anticipate the latter a little bit darker, having a slightly bitter taste and aroma, due to native bush present, particularly quintinia. I would expect Catlins kamahi to be mostly kamahi with some clover and southern rata present,” Claudine continues.

“Viper’s bugloss from Otago is a light honey, as compared to a Marlborough viper’s bugloss which has a brownish tinge due to a bit of manuka in it.”

Equipment Advancements

While her tastebuds have had to adapt to numerous honey varietals over the years, there has been big change in the equipment used for Claudine’s honey analysis too.

After years of squinting her tired eyes down the barrels of a microscope, in the early 2000s Claudine purchased an AM scope camera. This was linked to one of the three scope eye pieces so a photo could be captured, then transferred to a large screen, where all the pollens could instantly and easily be seen. This concept is still used today.

One of Claudine's earliest microscopy slide photos showing pollen of matagouri, black beech, dandelion, white clover, and manuka in a honey sample, as well as black sooty mould (an element in beech honeydew). Photo courtesy of Airborne Honey Ltd.

In Claudine’s initial years of honey analysis, the work was not so technical, and not so many things needing testing. Often beekeepers, as well as having knowledge on how to produce a monofloral honey, would often undertake some form of analysis before sending samples. It was not uncommon for a beekeeper to test moisture with refractometer, colour with their cardboard Pfund scale charts, and sometimes pollen count with a microscope. Tutin was very rarely tested as there was 100 percent hive removal from areas at risk times, but this changed post 2001 with tutin areas having permanent apiaries.

“It was not all that long ago when laboratory analysis undertaken by the buyer confirmed predominant pollen types and percentages, conductivity, HMF, glucose and fructose levels only, with these details supplied back to beekeepers using a small chart on one piece of A4 paper.” Claudine recalls.

An expansive garden at her Southbridge property keeps Claudine busy, along with her very technical work as lab supervisor at Midlands Apiaries in Ashburton.

Midlands have a modest, but well equipped, laboratory, with equipment ranging from very simple machines which perform one basic test, up to machines that can reliably test for multiple trace level analytes at the same time. These are used by the two members of the laboratory team to perform a reasonable amount of the tests that are regularly required to ensure quality is of a suitably high standard and meets all relevant requirements. Alongside this is contract testing out to accredited external laboratories ensuring requirements around market access, customer needs and honey definitions are met. Nowadays, the tests can sometimes lead to laboratory reports that are several pages long.

“These days with manuka producing such high-grade dollar value products you need big machinery, costing in the six digits to purchase to check adulteration, manuka levels, glyphosate, C4 sugars, tutin levels, to name a few. Much of the adulteration tests for honey are only available in Europe,” Claudine notes.

Sweet Sensory Skills

With a passion for honey and her sensory skills, honey judging seems a natural fit for Claudine and so she has been a part of Apiculture New Zealand’s National Honey Competition judging panel for the past nine years.

Honey judging requires sensory perception. This includes tasting and recognition of multi and monofloral honeys, and properly evaluating defects and qualities – aroma, colour, flavour, texture, taste (bitter/sweet), and after taste characteristics. In the National Honey Competition general presentation is also assessed. There are no pollen counts in the competition, sometimes moisture content is checked with a refractometer, and this must come in below 18.5%. Pfund colour international guidelines are used.

“During my time at Airborne, I was asked for the first time to judge the national honey competition at the 2013 NBA conference, Ashburton. Since then I have been part of the judging team,” Claudine says.

“It’s quite exciting to detect how some varietals can taste differently from various parts of New Zealand and thoroughly satisfying to, without reference and just based on experience, make the call as to the location of production!”

With the national apiculture conference and honey awards destined for Christchurch next year, Claudine is already looking forward to being at the judging table once again.

Onwards

So, more than 30 years after a chance meeting with a Kiwi beekeeper, the Canadian botany student has made a career, family and life in New Zealand, with some Canadian ice-based hobbies on the side.

These days, Claudine and John McCormick’s two acre block of land in Southbridge, Mid Canterbury provides an expansive garden of floral sources, with something flowering all year round to attract bees, butterflies, native birds, and floral show first prizes. Generally, the couple are happy by arrangement to host charity garden parties, garden clubs, and visitors for a stroll and chat. So, Claudine has become an avid gardener and this occupies much of her spare time, outside of her now very technical role of laboratory supervisor at Midlands Apiaries.

Perhaps that she finds comfort in her garden should not surprise, having seen her career go from botany degree of flowers, to seed analysis, then to pollen – Claudine has completed all stages of the plant cycle. Watching bees buzzing from flower to flower, she sums up that thoroughly interesting career to date with a quip.

“We’ve come a long way from sticking a finger in a drum and saying – ‘yep that’s honey!’.”


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