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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Give to Take – Southern Beekeepers Discussion Group


Kiwi farmers have a reputation for being too insular with problems faced either personally or in their business and when it comes to beekeepers that stereotype is strong. This month’s Club Catch-Up takes us to the south of the country where a group of beekeepers has bucked the norm through their Southern Beekeepers Discussion Group which has been stimulating discussion amongst those in the business of beekeeping from Ashburton to Te Anau since 2002.

In its nearly 20 years of existence the Southern Beekeepers Discussion Group has been the founding place for major industry good, from improved management of individual businesses to the likes of the Betta Bees breeding programme, several honey marketing groups, two Sustainable Farming Fund research projects and most recently Project Clean Hive.

The group brings together between a dozen and 20 beekeepers or industry stakeholders, such as scientist and suppliers, on a bi-monthly basis to discuss topics of mutual interest from within the industry or just what is happening in the hives. Independent facilitator John Scandrett, of Southland based consultancy business Scandrett Rural, has been there from the beginning.

“Local beekeeper Murray Ballantyne approached me as a farm advisor and said he would like me to run a discussion group for beekeepers, like they used to have events coordinated by MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries) in the ‘80s as they were good value,” Scandrett says looking back.

“I invited him to one of my sheep and beef groups to see how they are run. He was impressed by how positive the group was, how constructive and how they helped each other and how progressive they were.”

The Southern Beekeepers Discussion Group gather following a meeting at Tokarahi, Otago, recently.

So, while they were far from stateside, the discussion group found its beginnings on their own Independence Day, July 4 2002 with a meeting of about a dozen beekeepers at the Woodlands Tavern east of Invercargill.

Among the beekeepers present on that day was Otago apiarist Allen McCaw who still attends the discussions despite being “retired” with 70 hives. He has kept the list of issues that beekeepers outlined they were facing at that inaugural meeting.

McCaw chuckles as he reads out a list of issues that still reside today, things like managing cash flow, risk of not being paid, climatic impact on production, work isolation and staff shortages.

“That last one sounds familiar,” McCaw quips.

While the group has not been able to outright solve any of those major issues, they have helped each other navigate them through their regular discussions.

Both Scandrett and McCaw repeat the mantra “a problem shared is a problem halved” and that has certainly been the case, and maybe more than halved in some instances, with the likes of Betta Bees and other research projects making great inroads for the apiculture industry.

That industry good was a while coming though, the facilitator says.

“After the inaugural meeting it took about a year for everyone to get totally comfortable with sharing information with everyone else. There was a certain hesitancy because, prior to that, one beekeeper was the next one’s enemy. A ‘his bees are taking my bees’ nectar’ attitude and ‘his honey is competing locally with my honey’. But they soon realised there was strength in numbers. Now anybody in the group can ring up anyone else and talk through any beekeeping matter,” Scandrett says.

Beekeepers from Central Otago have even contacted those from further south to gain temporary hive sites during Otago droughts and a major AFB outbreak in one beekeeper’s business has been effectively managed thanks, in part, to group discussions and member input.

“You can’t take until you give. It’s a two-way street. The model relies on everyone giving something so that you can take. Once that realisation came through, there was a sharing of information and learning,” Scandrett says.

From the start the group set some strict ground rules, such as the need for punctuality and an apology if a member could not attend, respect for other’s information and anything of a personal nature has to be kept confidential, that all members have to contribute and respect other’s views, and membership is by invitation only.

McCaw says Scandrett’s ability as a facilitator has been instrumental to the group’s success and that he knows of similar commercial beekeeping groups around the country that have sought to establish without having the longevity of the Southern Beekeepers Group. He puts this down to the lack of an effective, independent facilitator in the start-ups.

“The key to it all along has been John’s skills as a facilitator. He is the first to say ‘it is not up to me, it is up to the group to make it work’, but in actual fact, he has experience working other farm groups and, by his own admission, doesn’t know anything about beekeeping, which is probably an advantage,” McCaw says.

The long-time Otago apiarist encourages other commercial beekeepers around New Zealand to give the concept of a discussion group a go if they think it could be of benefit, but says there are a few key things to consider.

“It takes a while to break the ice, particularly if there is history there, but you have to be prepared to give it time. Don’t worry about involving everybody. Start off with the keen people and others will see the value and join in,” McCaw says.

One thing is more important than the rest though and their group has struck it lucky in that respect, he believes.

“Getting that right facilitator, that’s the key. Getting the person with the right skills to bring the group together and it needn’t be a beekeeper.”


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