In 1912 the now fourth generation family business of Gavins Apiaries commenced when James John Gavin rode his horse up the Mangakahia Valley, following the river, to catch a swarm of bees. Today Gavins Apiaries remains in that same valley, 25 kilometres from Whangarei in sub-tropical Northland, with a focus on honey production and the required supporting activities. MAGGIE JAMES chatted with James’ grandson, who shares James John Gavin’s passion for beekeeping as well as his name, but is known to most as John. He explains how a focus on family, relationships, community involvement and the things that truly matter are driving the Gavin Apiaries pride and philosophy.
Maggie James: What family members are currently involved in the business and how many hives do you run?
John Gavin: Myself, my wife Cushla, son Liam and his wife Bianca. We have had four generations living on site, a potential fifth generation beekeeper arrived late last year. The family has lived on the same property for 96 years. Working together as a family has always given us a sense of pride.
We have 1300 hives, single decker brood boxes, through the mid north (Northland).
How many labour units are involved in the beekeeping side of the operation? Myself, Liam, plus one full-timer, Brendon Thompson who has been with us 18 years, plus Pucky our part-timer.
You’re 57 years-old now, but was it your decision to become a beekeeper or, being the third generation, was it expected of you? It was absolutely my decision. Out of all my family, I spent more time in the holidays working with my father. I did think of other vocations very occasionally, but I left school with the idea of being a beekeeper.
What about your son’s decision to become a beekeeper? The decision was Liam’s. Firstly, he did a diesel mechanic apprenticeship.
How many queens do you produce? Who do you produce for? We produce enough queens for ourselves. We used to do a lot more and we sold under Whiteline Queens. We were producing 15,000 to 18,000 mated laying queens per year, sold worldwide.
Why did you stop rearing queens for sale? A couple of reasons. My father, Terry, ran that side of the business. It was extremely labour intensive and was starting to compromise his health. At the same time, we felt the financial return didn’t meet the effort required. (Terry was a life member of the National Beekeeping Association and their president when varroa arrived in New Zealand).
Carniolan or Italian queens? We stick to Italian bees because that is what we have always used. We have not gone down the Carniolan track. We are not against Carniolan bees, but the Italians have always worked for us.
Do you always requeen with mated laying queens? No. We primarily requeen with protected queen cells. We also requeen with mated laying queens straight into some hives though.
What type of honey have you been producing the last ten years? Manuka, kanuka, bush and dark pasture.
Do you extract your own honey and how do you sell? We run our own full extracting facility and do not undertake contract extraction. We sell our honey in bulk, although we do pack some retail packs ourselves. Labelled as Gavins Honey, it is sold at the gate and different outlets in Northland.
Post Covid – have prices increased, has availability altered, freight costs increased? That is a difficult question. Some honey prices have gone up and some are well down over the last couple of years. Freight costs have gone up and this affects all our supplies.
Are you planning expansion? No, not myself, but my son Liam might do so further down the track.
What has been the steadiest source of income over the last ten years? Bulk honey.
Do you undertake paid pollination? We only do a little bit with avocado and kiwifruit. It is not a top money earner for us.
Do you make your own woodware? Yes, probably 90%. We have been making honey supers for 109 years, so we are really streamlined, with only the odd black fingernail these days!
Looking back, what are some major changes in the business? Things have changed. In the mid-1970s a lot of manuka went into comb honey. Dad got into the comb honey business, one of the first in New Zealand to get a decent price for manuka honey and comb honey. It was really a way of increasing return from manuka. Unfortunately, in the early 2000s, the cut comb boom burst.
What are some of things that have become more difficult? Controlling varroa, competition from other beehives, general costs of doing business e.g. compliance for export. I feel that MPI does not do the best for beekeepers. Beekeepers do not seem to be on the top of MPI’s agenda and they appear to continuously put roadblocks in front of us.
How have Health and Safety regulations affected your operation? We analyse tasks before undertaking them. Our H&S record is good, so obviously things are working for us, and things have not really changed.
How do you think the employer/employee relationship has changed over the decades? This has not changed for us. We treat staff no differently from ourselves, we treat them as an asset. We have a great team.
We also have a good relationship with our landowners, some who have also been in this community the same amount of time as us. We have always been involved in our local community.
Where do you see the NZ beekeeping industry going? It continues to be challenging times for the industry and we continue to adapt our business to meet these challenges.
What vehicles are you running? We have two utes and one five tonne truck with hydraulic arm. The two utes each do 25,000km a year.
Are you thinking of getting an electric truck or vehicle? No. There are no electric vehicles available suitable for our industry, nor appropriate subsidies!
Over four generations in beekeeping, how has the amount of the recreational time changed for the family? We spend more time away from work than we have done in a long time. We know what is coming and we get ready, analyse time management more and plan, allowing us to get through the work more efficiently.
In 109 years of operating, Gavins Apiaries must have a quirky story or two? In 1975 we packed five ton of Manuka honey into aluminium toothpaste-like tubes to supply the NZ Army. These tubes were put into their ration packs. After analyses of different honeys, manuka was the honey stipulated to be used. This was at a time when it was difficult to sell manuka, and light clover was the premium honey. Terry made a comment back then with a smile, that “one day the only place to get manuka would be in a health store or on a pharmacy shelf”!