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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

From Dawn to Dusk – Whitestone Honey’s Slick Waimate Operations

In May we met Shane Rawson and his team at Whitestone Honey Ltd in Oamaru and this month Maggie James travels up the road to the company’s Waimate branch to meet brother Craig Rawson, who, for the most part, is a one-man-band operator of the queen bee rearing and honey extraction side of the business. The beekeeping season sees Craig working six days a week, utilising time and workflow management to ensure high productivity both in the queen rearing operation and the honey house.

“We are always willing to change procedures and roll with the times, however we don’t do any more than is necessary,” Craig Rawson points out, as he welcomes me to Waimate.

The Whitestone Honey extraction line, looking from the horizontal extractor end, with camera-shy Craig Rawson at side. Photos: M James.

“We are always looking at ways to diversify what we are doing, as we know that we just can’t be a one crop industry. If it wasn’t for queen and pollen production, we would have had to shut the doors”

Of the 3640 Whitestone hives, 450 Waimate hives are for queen bee production. With some splitting, these 450 increase to nearly 1000 each spring. Add to that, later in the season, the extraction of 200 honey supers daily, six days a week, and that’s Craig’s busy domain. The Waimate hives are sited from Makikihi to the Waitaki River, an area of about 35km north to south. Below this you enter territory of the company’s Oamaru branch.

In 2011 Craig’s father Allan and brother Shane purchased the Waimate arm as a going beekeeping concern with extraction plant, and adjoining paddocks to house, the grafting yard and 450 nuc hives.

Queen Production

Craig Rawson has 20 years’ experience running grafting yards.

“I start grafting the last week of August, to get the volume of cells needed to reach our goals,” he explains.

The honey line feeding into the extractor.

Pre selection of breeder stock has been undertaken in autumn, with temperament and production value of high consideration. Rawson prefers a Carniolan/Italian cross, obtaining a “Tiger” bee. These are well suited to the South Canterbury/North Otago climate.

Early spring pollen sources include willow, tree lucerne, gorse, broom and five finger. Then late September dandelion yields.

“In the past we have bought in pollen patties, but next winter we will trial our mix of raw sugar and Whitestone produced pollen. If we produce our own acceptable blend, we can absorb the previous patty cost.”

Stimulation syrup feeds are implemented at the end of July/beginning of August. This initial inspection round takes two weeks, during which information is obtained on which units to split. Rawson then needs to look towards filling queen production requirements.

In mid-August all suitable hives are decreased down to three frames of queenless brood. The remaining frames of brood are transferred with their queen into nuc boxes, and fed, and by the end of August it is anticipated these colonies will boast five frames of brood. Following this first round, the queenless units raise their own queen. This is the only time of the year hives are split in this manner and these queens are sold.

These self-raised queens will more than likely mate with Whitestone stock. The home base apiary is the key yard in the middle, with radiating fringe sites of similar genetic strain within 6km. The approximately 450 nucs with queens are brought back to the Waimate home base, and these autumn queens are caged for sale, plus the approximately 450 self-raised laying queens as soon as the first lot of day 10 cells are ready to replace them.

Miticide treatments with strips are undertaken in September, when there are no mated queens in the split hives or nucs. This gives a good kill rate, with no brood for reinfestation for approximately four weeks. The first 450 newly-mated laying spring queens that are sold have not been exposed to a full miticide treatment.

“Grafting starts mid-August and I undertake this until December. After the first approximately 900 caged queens are sold I produce another 3000 queens to be used solely for the Whitestone operation.” Rawson explains.

His grafting room is in a controlled area at the end of the extraction plant hot room, immediately adjacent to the grafting yard. This spring, niece Madisyn will learn grafting techniques at Waimate, and thereafter will be based at Oamaru undertaking grafting from December in that branch.

Another IBC nears full as the homogenising, left, and holding, right, tanks look on.

The grafting yard comprises 100 hives with five breeder queens selected in autumn. Full depth queenless brood boxes are used, with additional frames of brood introduced weekly from the 450 nucs.

Cell bars hold 28 queen cells per bar, staying in the hive until day nine. There is only one bar per hive, and there are ten of these per graft, using plastic Bozzi cell cups without lugs. The Rawson grafting frame utilises the underside of the top bar.

“My last job at night, or first thing in the morning, is to run the blow torch underneath the top bar, then place the 28 cups on each frame. This is a quick method and works well for me.”

New cell cups are used, or recycled cups that have been immersed in hot water just below boiling; enough to melt wax debris but not damage the cups.

Grafts of 400 cells are undertaken twice weekly Monday and Friday, working on the proviso of 800-1000 cells weekly will yield 700 quality cells. Carricell incubators hold 288 cells in double layer of 144-holed sponges which have been dipped in water; creating humidity in the portable incubator.

“I prefer the Chinese bamboo grafting tool. These are less likely to damage larvae. The queen cage of my choice is Beetek with its one piece, and vents on all sides,” Rawson explains.

“The Waimate home apiary is not for honey production. It is for keeping our own genetics and queen rearing.”

The last “pull” of queens in Waimate are caged in January. The 450 nucs will be overwintered or used as supplementary hives in the Oamaru operation.

No grafting is undertaken in Waimate once the main honey flow starts, sometime in December. Rawson is now onto his next major task.

Weekly during extraction season Whitestone Honey produce six wheelie bins full of wax which are delivered to NZ Beeswax for processing.

The One-Man Honey House

This building is a pole bearing shed with rafters which enables easy removal of internal walls, if required, for alterations.

As soon as the main honey flow starts, Rawson turns to running an extraction plant as a busy and productive one-man band, six days a week, processing 200 full depth honey supers of pasture honey daily. He happily leaves all paperwork and admin to brother Shane in Oamaru while he concerns himself with removing the honey from the frames.

Honey is sold in bulk in 1000L Intermediate Bulk Containers (IBC), which generally hold 1400kg.

Whitestone Honey have a few mānuka and kanuka sites in South Otago, but these thixotropic honeys are contract extracted in that region.

Craig arrives on site from Timaru at 6.00 a.m. to switch the recycled hot water on for the knives. It is also his job to weed out “rummy” frames. As they gradually move over to all plastic frames, there are less hold ups with broken lugs.

Trucking Bay & Hot Room

Six days a week the “honey pulling team” based in Oamaru (see May article) arrive at Waimate with 200 supers for extracting, retrieving the previous 200 now extracted ‘sticky’ boxes.

In the delivery bay on one side of the shed a narrow roller door to enable fork lift access has been installed. Immediately outside boasts a refrigerated container for honey super storage, to be utilised for any future small hive beetle or major wax moth infestations.

The 10x4 metre hot room, capable of holding 1000 full-depth nine-frame supers, is run at 36⁰C. Generally, freshly pulled honey only requires an overnight stint. At other times up to three days may be required.

During my visit, Craig Rawson holds a full-depth and jumbo frame up and explains the jumbo frames are “inherited” with a recent large hive purchase. These frames and boxes are a half depth larger than full-depth with a box of full frames weighing 40-50kg (which includes 11-15kg of woodware). The Whitestone crew dislike this weight, and the brood frames are too big for their hive system and so all wooden jumbo and full-depth frames are gradually being phased out, in preference to plastic full-depth frames.

Automating the Honey Line

The Whitestone extraction process relies heavily on automation for their high level of production, with the only real manual aspect of the process when Rawson takes less than one minute to lift frames onto the deboxer. It then takes six minutes for 76 frames to be uncapped and travel to the extractor “can”.

In the past, empty boxes on pallets, using a barrow are moved to the end of the extraction line. However, to further speed the workload, this winter the wall next to the baffle tank will be removed, making way for empties to be forklifted to the extractor end.

To save plant space, the extractor is horizontal, with capacity for 76 frames. Loading the extractor is manual, 19 frames per section, with four sections, and total spinning time of six minutes.

From the extractor, honey is piped to the Bell Valencia wax separator then onto the baffle tank. The baffle tank, with seven compartments and double baffles, picks up any of the “alluvial” wax, missed by the separator. Honey is then piped to the holding and homogeniser tanks, both holding at least 2000L. One holds honey overnight, during which any remaining wax debris float to the top, while the second tank homogenises.

Each week Craig pokes his head out of the shed for the hour-long drive to NZ Beeswax in Orari with six wheelie bins, each containing 240kg of fine particle beeswax.

It’s a slick operation, both in the highly efficient extraction operation and the queen rearing unit, and that fits in with the overall business mantras that is keeping them operating through a honey price downturn.

“The times of beekeeping being a one crop industry are gone,” Craig Rawson says, adding, “Here at Whitestone Honey we believe in moving with the times and diversification”.

For more information on Whitestone Honey Ltd. contact Shane Rawson, shane@whitestonehoney.co.nz


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