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Inside Ashburton Apiaries

Last month Maggie James visited Geoff Bongard at Ashburton Apiaries in Mid Canterbury to learn the company history. This edition we take a look around the commercial beekeeper’s shed, plus hear about queen rearing issues, varroa counting, sugar feeds, some bee pest concerns, neighbour complaints and solar powered warmed water for bees!

By Maggie James

Honey dew plays an important role in Ashburton Apiaries 1800-hive beekeeping operation and, while this isn’t the worst dew season in their 40 years of operation, it’s bordering on it, says owner Geoff Bongard.

Taking pride of place in the Ashburton Apiaries honey house is this ex-dairy silo, with an impressive 15.8 tonne holding capacity. Steel reinforcement has been added to the base to provide the strength required for its current role.

When I visited in February, 2.5 tonne of beech dew had just been extracted and was being held in their towering 15.8 tonne holding tank. More recently, late April dew has been extracted. Quantities are down though, due to the amount of rain this season, with rain every four days on average.

The value of beech dew to the business is not just in honey sales. Hives that are required for pollination contracts are overwintered in dew areas, double-queened in spring, then shifted onto carrot pollination at 8hives/ha for six weeks early summer. Following the pollination, these hives shift to clover sites for the main flow on the Canterbury Plains. Immediately prior to the clover flow hives are super strong and reunited. Clover honey is extracted (although the flow was largely non-existent this season), then hives are sent back to honey dew to complete the yearly process. High productivity of every hive is paramount, Bongard says.

Ashburton Apiaries extraction room. All Photos: Maggie James.

Inside the Honey House

Designed by Ron Newton in the 1950s, Ashburton Apiaries honey house was doubled in size in 2000 and in 2017 another 28m2 was added to the building length.

During extracting – which is conducted solely for their own honey – the plant runs 8am-4.30 pm, by which time the hot room has also been cleaned out. A good operator can extract 32 eight-frame boxes hourly. On the west side of the extraction room is a large clear glass window letting in natural light. At appropriate times windows can also be opened for air flow.

The first year Geoff Bongard, and wife Angela, were in business they were strapped for cash and couldn’t afford an uncapper. Uncapping by hand took forever and a day, Bongard recalls.

“Fortunately, in 1990 we heard on the grapevine that Steve Bozzi (as in Bozzi cell cups design), Rangiora, retired and was selling his rather old Penrose Engineering uncapper,” Bongard says.

“Ten years ago this uncapper had a major overhaul. Due to constraint of operating space, we moved the motor to the opposite side. The turnout table at the end only held three boxes, so a larger table was built, big enough that we could fill in one turnout the 96 frame Syme’s extractor, which was bought from Les Spriggs in 1990.”

Cappings are transferred to a large white tank, stirred to get homogenised, then pumped by motor into a hummer.

Honey is piped through an interior wall during the day of extraction to either a small tank, which holds the equivalent of four 300kg drums, or to the much larger 15.8 tonne capacity ex diary silo, now with reinforced steel base capable of honey weight bearing. The drumming off facility is on a large Avery scale platform.

Nuc Yard and Re-queening

Ashburton Apiaries prefer requeening with laying mated queens in spring, as opposed to queen cells. Many years ago MAF and Apiary Instructors undertook study on protected queen cells for requeening. Their work indicated a 70-80% acceptance and so Bongard says he trialled this method as a labour-saving device. He has avowed never to again though as it was a disaster for their outfit. Some of the virgin queens were killed upon hatching by the old queens, while other virgins had killed the old queen and not returned from their mating flights. Consequently, there was the problem of numerous queenless hives. Therefore, their practise is to produce their own mated queens in separate mating yards of five or six frame nucs.

Varroa treatment in these yards is usually in the form of oxalic acid cardboard strips, one per unit.

“To ensure high quality queen production, the aim is no harsh proprietary manufactured miticide treatments in the nuc yards. Only, if necessary, in autumn once queen rearing is finished will this type of treatment be used."

Pre-varroa it was possible for their own well-bred Italian queens to last three years. These days a one-year-old queen is favoured. This means breeder queens are also young and therefore there is a lack of history of performance. Thus, as an assessment tool, every time honey is removed from hives it is weighed and recorded per hive.

Solar Power and a Watering Hole for the Bees!

Ashburton Apiaries grafting shed takes the form of an easily relocatable (by Hiab) steel garden shed with removable floor. The grafting yard is surrounded by macrocarpa hedges, and, nowadays, houses. When urban sprawl neighbours complained to the Ashburton District Council about bees visiting their garden taps and pools, the Council settled the issue by stating that if the Bongards provided drinking water for bees the problem would resolve. Ensuring bees specifically visit this drinking area, warm water is required.

Geoff’s son Greg – a trained electrician now managing Ashburton Apiaries – helped solve the drinking water issue by installing a large solar panel, creating 230volt power to warm the water. To help prevent bees form drowning, large concrete tiles are placed in the water. The solar power is also harnessed inside the shed, with LED lighting over the grafting table.

Laila Bongard, age 5, a fourth-generation beekeeper, with father Greg’s unique solar powered warm water bee trough.

Queen Cell Incubator – Sparky Skills to the Fore Again!

Aiding quality queen production and superior cells, both supersedure and emergency responses are used in the grafting yard processes.

Believing that the hive is the best incubator, finisher hives are used until day 8 (following the graft). The Bongards’ preference would be to leave cells in finisher hives until day 9, but this can be a bit risky in terms of early emergence or the team working against weather conditions. Further to that, finisher hives need pressure taken off them, in terms of space.

Concrete tiles are added to the Ashburton Apiaries solar-powered watering system to prevent bees from drowning while stopping by for a drink.

Therefore, on day 8 queen cells are removed into incubator portable cupboards designed by Greg. Each portable polystyrene incubator cupboard holds 144 queen cells. Power circulates around the sides, and the outside row has the same temperature as the middle of the pad, I’m told.

Unlike other portable incubators available on the market, the Bongard design holds the warmth better out in the field, Geoff says. In the past, in the Mid Canterbury climate, heat retention has been an issue, along with bumpy farm tracks which can cause damage to cells, hence their decision to make their own well-insulated incubators.

Speeding Up Mite Counting

Capturing bees for “icing sugar shake” counting of varroa mites is made simpler with a Bosch double speed Unlimited Series 8 vacuum cleaner. Once bees are emptied from the vacuum cleaner into their jar and undergone the shake, they are tipped onto a white piece of plastic shower lining.

“The contents are then sprayed with water and the varroa start swimming!” Bongard explains.

“We don’t need or have time to count every mite, you soon figure out what’s good. Anything above 20 mites on the board is treated with proprietary treatments. On each hive lid the date and varroa level are written”

Dry Sugar Feeds – White v Raw

Hives have double compartment top feeders with one side for granular sugar, the other syrup. Once the price of raw sugar exceeded white, white was trialled as dry feed and has been used since.

“White sugar doesn’t colour frames, and we sell our honey on colour,” Geoff Bongard says.

“There is potential to colour honey, particularly an early crop. The dry sugar is put on promptly after the flow (in late summer) and at this time of the year the old bees are able to convert it, and take it down to the brood nest. Any dry sugar in the feeder after winter is retrieved and added to the syrup tank. Raw sugar can’t be fed in liquid form.”

Planning for Pest Attacks

While small hive beetle (SHB) has not yet made it to New Zealand, Bongard has decided to have a plan in case of its establishment. That involves setting aside of space for a refrigerated room in which unextracted honey can be stored with a much lower risk of SHB chewing through it.

“We are in a good position as owner/operators extracting our own honey. Beekeepers who have honey sitting two to three weeks prior to processing will really struggle. There will be extra pressure on contract extractors,” Bongard envisages, should SHB make it to New Zealand.

“If it comes, beekeepers will have to make decisions quickly. Australian beekeepers tell me, that while they don’t have varroa, they would have preferred varroa to SHB. Getting honey out of frames before damage is a big issue.”

Greater wax moth – showing itself in Canterbury this year.

One pest that has already arrived is the greater wax moth. While the lesser wax month can be commonly seen, only in the last month has the larger moth reappeared in a few of their hives on the Plains, Bongard says.

“None have been seen in our sheds, but we are on alert for it this winter. The last two winters in Mid Canterbury have been very mild with only a few frosts. This season summer was late, with major rainfall at times for days. This pattern, which may be due to climate change, has probably created ideal conditions for this moth.”

So, while there is always a challenge to be overcome, the Bongards and Ashburton Apiaries have proven they have not just the beekeeping knowhow, but some adaptive tools at hand to help get them through.

To discuss any aspect of this story with Geoff Bongard, email


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