From English language teacher, to beekeeper and now senior auditor at AsureQuality, Ilona Hart’s career has had some pivots. Nigel Costley caught up with the nomadic Risk Management Programme (RMP) auditor to learn what life on the road, meeting New Zealand’s beekeepers and assessing their operations, is really like.
Being a honey house auditor, Hart often has to deal with the sharp end of the business. As the face of her company, AsureQuality, she can sometimes cop the flak from stressed-out beekeepers.
“It’s not all like Country Calendar. Some people are really struggling,” she says.
Not many people embrace an audit willingly, but she finds the tensions dissipate after their initial chat, when the beekeeper realises they’re dealing with someone who is genuinely empathetic and, herself, an avid beekeeper.
She came to the job by an unlikely route. A linguist by profession, Hart has spent most of the first 15 years of her working life travelling the globe teaching English. After a stint teaching in Japan, she worked her way to a high-powered job running an English teaching agency in London, responsible for the hiring and training of 60 teachers. It wasn’t to last though.
“I found it was endless problem solving, not a lot of joy. I lost the love for it,” she says.
Coming back to New Zealand with little more than a backpack, she ended up staying with her aunty near Tapawera, a village just south of Nelson. While pondering her next career move, she ended up pruning roses in Sherry Valley Apiaries owner Jeff Lukey’s garden. During smoko something marvellous happened. Strangely-clad workers appeared, excitedly babbling a mysterious and exotic language about queens, landing boards and robbing.
“I was immediately fascinated and begged them to take me along,” Hart says.
There was initial reluctance from the beekeepers. By her own admission, wasn’t she a high-heel and designer-clothes wearing big city slicker?
Eventually she wrangled a beekeeping job. Although it was largely donkey work at first, lifting boxes and such, she loved it. She learnt quickly that once you’re in the field the theory counts for little and she had her share of mishaps.
“I got stuck in a river once and the boys had to rescue me. But I had the grit – I wasn’t going to let it beat me.”
Given her academic background, helping out with Lukey’s paperwork, such as his RMP, was an obvious job during her down-time. Hart was introduced to AsureQuality when Marco Gonzalez came to audit their operation. After three years working for Lukey, much as she enjoyed it, Hart realised she needed to do something for herself.
So, when an auditor position came up at AsureQuality four years ago, with her self-reliance, academic credentials, and beekeeping experience, she was an ideal fit. After a great start with Lukey and Sherry Valley Apiaries, she fell on her feet regarding mentors, auditing in the first instance with Byron Taylor and Murray Reid.
Hart’s progress in the business has been spectacular and her full title now is senior auditor/trainer bee products RMP and herself now mentors new auditors. As she spends most of her time living out of suitcases touring the country, it helps that she has no family commitments.
“I’m a bit of a nomad anyway,” Hart admits.
How to Audit
Covering the whole gamut of bee products, including pollen, royal jelly and propolis, Hart’s job is not lacking in intellectual stimulus. Working under the Animal Products Act of 1999, AsureQuality monitors the contractual obligations between the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and the beekeeper. Everyone understands that these protocols and requirements are necessary to protect our high-value export markets.
The tricky part comes in the ‘how’ part of the question. That is why all the specific details – guide to building design, cleaning, pest control and much more – are all spelt out in the RMP. Usually the questions likely to be asked are sent out before the audit. But the beekeeper must be prepared for random sampling and probing of the tracing system too. Finding a mutually agreeable time (usually between two and four hours) can be a challenge. As it is an ‘all year around’ business, it is not always possible to avoid the busy times.
All hive products must be correctly labelled and Hart says she sees “some crazy things” on labels. Claims on retail labels are checked against laboratory reports where applicable, as are advisory statements on potentially hazardous substances, such as bee venom.
“We check all additional requirements through the e-cert system when product is transferred between premises, such as glyphosate levels for Japan, to ensure there are no problems further down the track.”
Getting a non-compliance result can sometimes be a shock for the beekeeper. Usually this can be quickly rectified by emailing evidence of the correction through to the auditor.
Currently MPI is working with the industry to move to more annual, rather than six-monthly, audits.“Beekeepers will welcome this development, since they pay for the audits, but will have to demonstrate that they take full responsibility for their own procedures,” Hart says.
Keeping on Beekeeping
Despite her demanding work and travel schedule, Hart is determined to keep her hand in with the bees, keeping no more than five hives, they’re for pets rather than production. Some very tight time-management saw her successfully complete her level 4 Queen Raising Course last season.
As her work encompasses the whole country, the north/south divide as to hive concentration is striking, both in the economics and biology of beekeeping. North has congestion issues chasing the high UMF Manuka, while in the south farmers can be crying out for hives on their land.
She’s noticed a dramatic change in the last four years, with market access issues, low prices for non-manuka honey, and difficulty in finding staff combining to create a really demoralising scenario for many beekeepers.
Whatever the pressures though, Hart is keeping up her dander and happily carrying out her essential role in the industry.
“There was one customer who named his bait station after his previous auditors,” Hart recalls, “so I’ll know I’ve really made it when I get a bait station named after me”.
Ilona’s tips on the audit process:
· An incorrect Harvest Declaration Form is far and away the most common fault. Many beekeepers don’t realise its importance – it ties the whole system of traceability together. So don’t be slap-dash in filling it out.
· Get someone who is not as familiar with the honey house to do a dummy-run inspection, armed with the internal audit checklist. They will see things easily missed by the over-familiarity of daily usage.
· Don’t take non-compliance personally. It’s only a requirement you’ve yet to meet and often it can be easily rectified with additional staff training.
· Sometimes non-compliance comes from adding on a new process to an existing one without fully thinking through the additional hazards.
· Foreign contaminants are the most common cause of a re-call. Therefore, a useful exercise would be to ask: “what steps would I take if paint flakes were found in the honey?” This is a good test of traceability and record keeping.
· Take time to upskill - consider attending the one-day audit training sessions. See www.asurequality.com/academy/course-finder/
MPI has several websites with helpful information, such as the RMP Operator Resource Toolkit