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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

Innovative Blackball Beekeepers Thrive Despite Isolation

When blacksmith at the Blackball coalmine Ralph Glasson established his first beehive in 1924, he may not have expected the resulting business to still be thriving and producing quality West Coast honey 97 years later, but grandson Gary Glasson is making sure the old smith’s legacy lives on. MAGGIE JAMES called in on Glasson Apiaries to meet the family and staff, learn some local history, about running a beekeeping business in a rural area and even tag along for a spot of beekeeping.

It started with Ralph Glasson’s one hive in his backyard to provide supplementary food for their family in the 1920s and it became a full-time beekeeping business which son John took on. Aged 83, John keeps an active eye on the Glasson Apiaries business which his son Gary, 56, now oversees, still located in the town to which it has long been tied.

Gary Glasson with his EzyLoader drum lifter, one of several innovative devices used in their remote West Coast business.

Blackball is situated on a plateau overlooking the Grey River, 25 km northeast of Greymouth. Annual rainfall is usually between 2000-3000mm, with mild temperatures and not particularly windy. To the west is the shelter of the Paparoa Range, often snow covered in winter.

The town has a militant political past, as the founding place of the Labour Party in 1908 and then in 1925 as the headquarters of the NZ Communist Party. The coalmine closed in 1964 and currently Blackball’s population is 300.

Whilst the small population, isolation and climate make Blackball ideal for beekeeping, it all comes with a set of challenges for Glasson Apiaries to adapt to and manage.

Gary and partner Sue live at Glasson Apiaries with their 21-year-old son Sam, who is currently shepherding in the North Island.

The family is well entrenched in the local community, with Sue travelling into Greymouth two days a week to work as a registered nurse, in urology, at Grey Hospital. She also supports the Cancer Society, baking weekly for chemotherapy patients, and has a daughter and two grandchildren living in Greymouth.

The Team and Their Honey

Glasson Apiaries operate 1000-1100 hives and seasonally 200 nuc colonies, with their own honey house but no contract extraction or pollination contracts. Gary and three staff all work full time, only rarely advertising for staff, and employing long serving locals – Jono for 12 years, Logan for seven years (a Level 4 apprentice), and Ravin one year.

“We’re aware of competing with everyone else in the South Island for staff,” Gary Glasson explains.

“Work conditions must be good and the aim is to keep staff attitudes relaxed. Local staff are employed with similar values on life and with outdoor interests, giving all common ground, aiding team camaraderie and quality work outcomes.”

In season 40-45 hours per week are worked five days a week, although Glasson will often work at home base in the weekend.

“We have an eight-week break in winter, but this is flexible if staff need time off elsewhere, but they must be here for when the honey is taken off in summer. The three main monofloral varietals come in quick succession, when it’s all hands on deck to keep the varietals separate. In the extraction plant, local students are employed over the summer academic break.”

Monoflorals produced for bulk sale are kamahi, manuka, and rata, in that order.

Producing monofloral West Coast honey crops, particularly those with dollar value that granulate rapidly, requires long term local knowledge of pollen and nectar sources, weather patterns, when to add honey supers, how many, and when to remove and extract. The crew need to get around hives quickly to keep crops separate, and honey removal is at least three times per season.

“We also need to work around the weather, and we go hard, then extract on wetter days. Sometimes the hot room is full, the shed too, plus a full load of honey on the truck, all chocka.”

Packed honey is at the gate only, for locals, apiary landowners and donations. Honey house workflow and layout is suited to less destructible plastic jars; townsfolk preferring the plastic 2kg option with larger opening, then recycling the containers for use in their workshops.

“Our apiaries are no more than 70km from Blackball. This cuts down on fuel and vehicle use, and means staff are not paid just for travelling. These small distances negate the need for driver hours logbooks,” Glasson explains.

There is solid community support for the long-time employer, including the benefit of long-serving staff, but the remoteness and exclusivity create issues around freight, supplies, industry networking, education and potentially now Significant Natural Areas (SNAs).

These longstanding issues are exacerbated by Covid to such an extent that the next project at Glasson Apiaries is building a holding shed for extra supplies. Constantly rising and seemingly out of control freight expense was the catalyst for Glasson developing an on-site frame washing process, expressly just for their outfit. This has created another task for staff in down time, with cleaned frames guaranteed to be available to suit their schedules.

Industry Networking & Education

Glasson regularly makes a 500 km round trip “over the hill” attending Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) Canterbury Hub gatherings.

“It is important to meet beekeepers, learn things regarding varied floral sources, industry experiences and opinions, and the different challenges beekeepers face,” Glasson says.

A regular attender at national conferences, unfortunately this year was off the agenda for Gary, due to long flights and often erratic regional timetables. Glasson Apiaries were represented at the ApiNZ national conference in June by apprentice Logan who ferried and drove to Rotorua.

In May, the two travelled to the Beekeepers’ Day Out at Lincoln. Recently staff, along with other beekeepers who travelled long distances, attended an onsite queen cell production tutorial in Blackball, with plenty of beekeeping chat over lunch and afterwards.

Glasson is relishing the 2022 ApiNZ national conference in Christchurch being closer to home. However, he has an aversion to driving in the big smoke and therefore is considering arriving in stress-free West Coast style, by boarding the TranzAlpine scenic train at Greymouth.

Potential SNAgs

Unlike most provinces, Glasson estimates that over 85% of Westland is Department of Conservation estate. Added to this, it seems any land with natural bush or swamp will potentially be deemed SNAs and protected under the Resource Management Act with land use severely limited. This sort of action from the government concerns Glasson and so in July his truck joined rural advocacy group Groundswell NZ’s Howl of Protest in Greymouth, protesting increased government interference, bureaucracy, unjustifiable costs to the rural sector and SNAs.

“In planning SNAs there appears to be no reference to beekeeping, and there is the possibility that beekeeping may not be able to be performed as a permitted activity. In attempt to stop this occurring, I’ve attended various meetings in the area pushing the beekeeping perspective,” Glasson says.

Many comments emitting from Wellington are confusing the West Coast beekeeper says, and there is a huge question as to whether Glasson Apiaries owned bushland may be permitted for beekeeping.

Into the Hives

SNA’s aside, I join the Glasson Apiaries team in early August on a cool but slowly-warming morning for the first inspection since May at a 40 hive overwintering apiary. We are checking hive populations and that a laying queen is still present, then inserting four Bayvarol strips per box and, if required, a top up of raw sugar and 1:1 syrup. Miticide treatments are Bayvarol in spring, Apivar or Apitraz in autumn, with an organic treatment prior to the honey flow.

Despite a bit of frost still on the ground, a sunny August day on the West Coast sees the beekeeping team at Glasson Apiaries in the hives for the first checks of the new season. Photo: Maggie James.

On this morning we find the Italian bees are of good temperament, and happy on a slight beech flow. The gorse now flowering makes up for the usual beech pollen deficit. Post varroa, due to decimation of feral colonies, black grumpy bees are less common in the area.

These are strong hives and run all year as double brood boxes, with nine frames in each and a top feeder divided in two – one compartment with bracken for syrup, the other raw sugar. Some have been overwintered as triple deckers.

Nine frames per box makes inspection easy, with the outer frame removed and the other frames easily moved across. Single brood boxes tend to go into winter-mode too late, with not much in the way of natural stores. This has been a mild winter, with more rain than usual and ample gorse flowering. These hives have overwintered very well and, now with strong populations, will require splitting into nucs.

Later in the season, nine frame full depth honey supers will be added. They used to run eight frames per honey super, but with manuka production and the use of a pricker at the extraction plant, an extra frame results in less burr comb between frames. This means less time needed spreading frames when putting honey supers out. The only negative with nine frames, is the crew must pull one frame out before using the bee blower.

Hive mats are not used and instead lids are lined with corflute, cut to size by the local graphic designer to fit tightly. Corflute hinders condensation over winter, helps with insulation and lessens the amount of rusting due to organic varroa treatments. On hive inspections it is one less piece of hive equipment to be removed and replaced. Although to prevent robbing when requeening, a few hive mats are carried on the truck.

In the last year Glasson Apiaries have only had three cases of American foulbrood (AFB). Major AFB inspections are undertaken in spring, when AFB is easily diagnosed if present, eliminating the likelihood of splits being made from infected hives.

Mouse guards are generally not necessary and are only deployed to hives occasionally if there is a wasp issue. The rare rodent attack is generally a solitary rat that might totally decimate supers, and in turn, the crew decimate the culprit.

On the outside front of each hive in the centre of the box is an interesting management tool. About thumbnail size, a stapled plastic disc denotes when the hive was requeened - triangle autumn, square spring, the colour is the year. Most hives are requeened annually.

Often a very old queen, if still presenting a great brood pattern, instead of being killed is split off into a smaller colony, with the parent colony receiving a new queen. For some reason, the old queen generally gets a new lease of life and fires up her egg laying ability, with a resulting strong brood box. Glasson is unsure why this happens, perhaps it is due to a smaller population sharing the queen’s pheromones though.

Back to the Future

Glasson Apiaries is a business steeped in history, as Gary Glasson and staff continues to traverse the very same areas his father and grandfather once did. That connection strengthened when, a few years ago, Glasson purchased several hectares, complete with his grandfather’s original extraction shed and plant.

Still surviving the decades were the typical concrete steps that allowed gravity to run the honey from the extractor into 60lb tins. Now “The Past Shed” as it has become known, holds all sorts of equipment from 97 years ago, some of it coming in handy at times in the remote area, for reinvention or spare parts.

Among that gear is four, five and six frame full depth nuc boxes built by grandad Ralph, still usable. Outside at the back of the shed there is a large natural sunny plateau capable of holding all the nucs made up each spring, another plateau behind, slightly shaded, is for support hives. A solitary, long serving, solidly built and very content woolly four-legged lawnmower maintains the grassy plateaus, controlling bush spread and completing the idyllic rural setting of an iconic West Coast beekeeping business.


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