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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

“Living the Dream” in One of The World’s Most Pristine Environments

It seems many beekeepers are hunter/gatherers, but why so? The answer perhaps lies in the very real crossover of skills required – an appreciation of the natural world, being physically fit, with acute awareness of weather patterns and the seasons, plus the ability to read the natural environment. Derek Johnson is one such beekeeper who has harnessed those skills and combined his passions to provide a livelihood. Maggie James heads for West Coast Wilderness Honey to see how the Johnsons do it.

By Maggie James

On a warm West Coast day, with the north side of Mt Cook spectacularly snow covered and the Tasman Sea sparkling bright blue reflecting a matching sky, I meet in Greymouth with self-employed local beekeeper and bushman Derek Johnson. A man with many strings to his bow, Johnson is an avid hunter/gatherer, contract possum controller and dedicated photographer. The outdoorsman is even a contributor – preferably behind, but sometimes in front of the camera – to New Zealand television hunting programmes and magazines. There’s another string to Johnson’s bow too – enthusiastic part-time beekeeper, with Derek and wife Suanne trading as West Coast Wilderness Honey.

A successful morning out before even reaching the apiary for West Coast beekeeper Derek Johnson. He says he is selective with what he shoots, and it is often with a camera. This hind was scoped on day break on the way to the apiary and a bit of pest control undertaken with a .223 rifle. Photo: Kade Johnson.

A Rough Introduction

As an eight-year-old, biking home from tennis, Johnson passed a parked truckload of angry beehives then, whoomph, he was attacked by bees! Multiple stings were sustained, 20 to Johnson’s face alone, requiring hospital admission. He was warned he would most likely be highly allergic to honey bee venom the rest of his life.

His aversion to honey bees remained for some years and, decades later, when Derek and Suanne met in 1993, his future father-in-law decided he and Johnson would undertake a tour of his extraction plant in one of their early meetings. Johnson saw a few bees on the inside shed window and had a major panic attack.

“I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the bloody bees!” he recalls.

“But years later in 2016, I had a totally different vision when out in the field and, as soon as I lifted the lid off a hive, I was hooked and got my first two hives."

Helpful Beginnings

That father-in-law is Ralph Glasson, who with Johnson’s cousin-in-law Gary Glasson now provide a base of practical beekeeping and business mentoring advice to Johnson, calling on their 130 years of combined lifetimes’ beekeeping experience. Johnson has never really worked in a commercial beekeeping business, so the Glassons’ intense commercial mentoring is conducive to beekeeping being carried out safely, productively and with an eye on budgets.

The Johnsons like to mix in a bit of recreation when they can if the kids are helping in the hives. Here, the beesuit comes in handy for Kade Johnson as the sandflies start biting during some trout fishing.

In 2017 Johnson and wife Suanne obtained another 12 hives and afterwards for the next two years every time he worked a hive Ralph was there to observe and advise. Over the years Johnson has gradually split these initial colonies and now runs up to 70 full-depth double brood box hives, while the couple market their own honey.

“2017 was the year for a massive rata flow, giving us a fantastic start,” Johnson recalls.

“50 boxes of undrawn supers were put out on the 12 hives. Each hive drew out five boxes of foundation, plus each yielded 50kg of rata crop.

“Southern rata is a honey flow of only once in every several years, of very light colour with a distinct silky, smooth, buttery texture. A different taste to that of northern rata.”

The couple have their own NP1 plant for extraction of kamahi, rata and honey dew, in a new specifically built building, much larger than currently required. Mānuka honey is contract extracted at an RMP facility.

They are happy with their current hive numbers, which require two full days work per fortnight, no business debt, and leave them well poised to expand, if necessary. It means Johnson is comfortable working, learning and problem solving with the bees at an enjoyable pace.

He recalls sagely advice from Ralph along the lines of, ‘beekeeping is hard work. Bee increases are easy to make, therefore it doesn’t make sense to buy hives. You need to run without debt, have ability for alternative income streams, and don’t rely on a bumper year every season’.

“With the current low honey prices, we are pleased we paid attention to this,” Johnson observes.

Tackling AFB Incidence

In 2017, in a high American foulbrood (AFB) area, the drawing out of such a large amount of comb potentially stopped spread of AFB and other diseases in their operation. When out working with Ralph there was emphasis on AFB education. After shaking bees off brood frames, whilst a great brood pattern might be displayed, four to five caps are flicked off every frame and cell contents inspected.

Suanne Johnson’s cousin, experienced beekeeper Gary Glasson in Blackball, has been a great mentor to Derek Johnson, including trips out blowing honey with Glasson Apiaries last season.

When, three years ago, an AFB hive was found it was euthanised and burnt as required. Ever since then that apiary has been totally quarantined and their whole outfit appears to be AFB-free.

Helping Hand

Last summer Johnson helped Gary Glasson in Blackball with honey removal, using a bee blower, and extraction.

“I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how a large outfit worked as a team with good camaraderie, where everyone had a specific task, swapping around jobs after lunch so that the same guy didn’t get all the heavy lifting. Heavy duty hive tools were used,” Johnson observed of Glasson Apiaries’ work.

Adding to the practical knowledge garnered from Ralph – who believed the ability to produce their own queens and run a grafting yard was essential for the fledgling business – last winter Johnson, (along with 3% of the population of Blackball!) attended a tutorial on quality queen cell production with this author, and has put his new knowledge into use this spring.

“This September, I put the first lot of this season’s queen cells out into top splits and four frame nucs. These were our best spring matings ever with great, and very few failed, matings. Requeening is not undertaken in autumn, due to robbing,” Johnson says.

Do it Yourself

When it comes to honey sales, Ralph Glasson’s mentorship of ‘get rid of as much honey as possible by yourself and sell locally’ is put into practise, with the Johnsons selling most of their honey at their roadside stall, via their Facebook page, and at a couple of Greymouth and Christchurch outlets. Creamed Rata honey is supplied to West Coast Chocolate Icons for use as filling in their Pancake Rocks shaped chocolate.

The honey house, shop stand, woodware production shed, grafting yard, and a few sheep are all sited on a block of local nearby land purchased and planted in macrocarpa and Lawson cypress by Johnson’s grandfather upon his return from WWI.

Johnson has a portable sawmill, milling his own timber and windblown native trees under concession. On wet days he makes his own woodware, feeders, bottom boards, escape boards, and lids. The latter are covered in printer’s tin, while bottom boards are made from hard wearing Lawson cypress.

Getting the Kids Involved

The Johnson’s teenage sons Kade and Sam are encouraged to assist with beekeeping, but they try not to make this task arduous for the boys. Therefore, trout fishing is often undertaken on the way home, or perhaps hunting.

Because of Johnson’s childhood experience with bees, and not wanting to repeat it with the boys, hives are blocked when shifted. Thus, there is a 100mm hole in bottom boards with a stainless mesh cover for ventilation, ensuring strong hives are not smothered enroute.

Johnson is conscious of fuel prices and time management. All hives are within a 40km radius, which is an 80km loop return trip. This allows for easy winter and spring feed on wet evenings with 60% syrup in top feeders. Late winter a container of raw sugar is added to the feeder.

Wasps can be an issue on beech dew sites, and when this occurs 15mm entrances are reduced to 12mm, then later shifted for overwintering 15 minutes from home.

Freight is a major business expense for Johnson.

“Recently I ordered 216 frames with plastic inserts. The freight was $200, that’s essentially freight of one dollar per frame!” he says.

A Life in the Back Blocks

The isolation might be a drawback when it comes to freight, but Westland’s remoteness and large conservation estate more than makes up for it for Johnson.

First hand, as a beekeeper, he reaps the benefits of regenerated rata and kamahi vegetation from his 30 years of contract possum control the full length of Westland, plus the Otira Valley in Arthur’s Pass area, among others in the South Island. Sometimes this involves camping for 20 days in remote wilderness and being flown in and out by chopper or fixed wing. His land-based controls use traps with 1080 or cyanide bait stations. Leg hole trap lines are also used, each 200 metres apart right up to the tussock country and on raised sets, ensuring weka, kiwi, kaka, and other native birds can’t gain access.

Cyanide stations are weatherproof and raised, nailed to trees, and not accessible to bird life. Johnson is not involved in 1080 air drops.

Payment for contracts are success based. If you don’t pass the audit, you pay for the re-monitor. The Department of Conservation audits by placing traps every 20 metres and up to 15 lines of 10 traps. Johnson considers this type of review keeps contractors honest and says he has failed the occasional block, usually due to adverse weather.

His and the Johnson family’s life is certainly one that is close to nature, whether that is trapping invasive species to protect the native environment, hunting and fishing for the table, or a burgeoning beekeeping enterprise where all are involved. Bringing those values together is important to Johnson, who has enjoyed learning to keep bees and seeing how it all comes together.

“When advertising we always try to include a photo of our honey showcasing West Coast scenery,” he says, adding “we are really trying to build our brand on the fact that we create a quality 100 percent pure and natural New Zealand product in one of the world’s most pristine environments”.

If you wish to discuss any aspect of this story with Derek Johnson email


And There’s Another String to the Bow…

Derek Johnson puts a rimu log through his portable mill. Before a change in government saw the practice dis-allowed, Johnson harvested wind-blown timber from conservation forests by flying in the mill, and flying out milled and packed timber.

Before beekeeping occupied two days work a week, Derek Johnson was already “going bush” with a portable wood mill.

In 2014 Cyclone Ita devastated large areas of native forest on the West Coast. The National government of the time brought in legislation that allowed removal of wind thrown trees from conservation land. Johnson’s contracting business was one of a few given a five year concession to salvage the native timber resource. Very strict guidelines had to be followed he says, with 50% of the wind thrown trees having to remain in the forest and no land-based machinery to be used.

His method involved flying a portable mill into the forest, milling the trees into board form which were then made into packs that could be flown out to the nearest road end. All sawdust and off cuts remained in the forest, which was seen as a benefit to the general health of the forest he believed.

A change of government saw an end to the practice and millions of dollars of timber lay rotting in our forests. A truly sustainable resource not being utilised.


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