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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

The Beekeeper with Innovative Engineering Touch

Last month we met John Syme, a lifetime beekeeper whose connection to apiculture in New Zealand goes back 161 years. The Canterbury apiarist’s contribution to beekeeping has not just been in the hives though and the Syme name is also associated with honey extraction and crane equipment. Despite creating several innovative pieces of equipment, engineering was always a side-line to beekeeping, but we learn that it was almost much more than that and Syme equipment is still in regular use around the country.

John Syme in his Staveley workshop, Canterbury, where his 1970 TK Bedford beekeeping truck is undergoing an overhaul. Photo: Maggie James.

By Maggie James

Engineering seemed to come naturally to John Syme, with an ability to record details and designs to mind, he was self-taught from a young age and the skills have reaped reward as a supplementary income stream to his beekeeping career.

These days the 82-year-old’s well organised and clean workshop in Staveley, Canterbury, houses not just assorted beekeeping gear, but a wide range of honey processing equipment that he is well known for manufacturing. As well as that there is one of the two helicopters he has built and, taking pride of place, the once busy beekeeping truck – a 1970 TK Bedford currently undergoing an overhaul.

The Patented Syme 2-in-1 Honey and Wax Spinner

Perhaps Syme’s most recognised invention is the 2-in-1 honey extractor and wax spinner which he first designed in 1969, saying “there was nothing in the world like it”, at the time.

He developed the extractor after getting the idea from looking at a washing machine spin clothes.

‘I thought, why not do that with honey using centrifugal force and gravity, instead of spinning with the legs on the floor where the honey was only off one side of the spinner, which was spinning horizontally,” Syme says.

“I found it worked and I made a super-duper one and it worked even better.”

The Syme 2-in-1 honey extractor and cappings spinner was first designed in 1969 and while it found some popularity in New Zealand and even Japan, John Syme says growth of the engineering businesses was limited due to his focus on beekeeping.

The 2-in-1 model spins the honey from the frames, whilst separating the honey from the cappings, removing the need for a hummer. It also proved that “cold” extraction was possible – doing away with the need for a hot room. Beech dew and clover honey, common honeys in Canterbury, were extracted from cold. Up to 10-tonnes can be removed from the frame in eight hours. After extracting three loads, the cappings are spun.

Knowing he was onto a good thing, Syme took out a world patent on his invention, with the help of a Government grant which provided venture capital to businesses seeking to create work.

Syme was unsure of the demand for further exports at that time, with the global beekeeping industry hit by an unexplained phenomenon of bee deaths. He says he came close to setting up a multi-million-dollar industry manufacturing extractors for both potential domestic and overseas buyers. However, this did not proceed as the Government of the day decided to stop providing export incentives.

While he regrets not pushing for export growth, his reasoning was solid – he was a proven multi-generational commercial beekeeper, but a self-taught engineer. Engineering management and marketing is another ball game, and Syme chose to look after his bees first and foremost.

First Honey Extraction Plant in Japan

While small-scale production of Syme honey house equipment was contracted out under the direction from the Symes Apiaries base in Staveley, a chance meeting in 1998 opened the door to an export market, 30 years after his first extractor manufacture.

John Syme, with Mt Somers in the background, proudly alongside the 1926 Essex sedan which he and wife Daphne restored after the vehicle caught a shed beam during a snowstorm. Photo: Maggie James.

At the 1998 National Beekeepers’ Association conference, in Ashburton, Syme noticed a young Japanese couple sitting by themselves. In typical, amicable John Syme fashion, he introduced himself to newly arrived in the country, Motoshi (Moto) and Yoko Suzuki. Six months later Moto contacted Syme about work and then spent four years with Symes Apiaries.

Each winter the Suzukis travelled back to Japan to keep in touch with beekeepers. When beekeepers on Hokkaido Island, in northern Japan, became interested in Syme’s plant, representatives were sent to Staveley to inspect.

Hokkaido beekeepers placed an order for manufacture of the first honey extraction plant in Japan, made of stainless steel, meeting international food safety compliance and capable of extracting honey at 100 frames in one, ten-minute cycle. All componentry fitted into a six-metre shipping container and in 2012 Syme flew to Japan to undertake the installation. At the time honey extraction in Japan was largely by hand and highly labour-intensive.

“I sold about 19 extractors throughout New Zealand, but I believe the plant to Japan was the first to be exported from New Zealand, and I was 70 by then!” Syme says.

Sadly these days the high cost to the beekeeper with extraction equipment is not always necessary, Syme laments, saying that, once the industry became corporate, overseas manufacturers moved in on the New Zealand market, selling high-priced plant manufactured overseas.

“Many honey facilities around New Zealand are using extraction equipment imported from overseas, but more could have been sourced locally and probably at a lower price,” Syme says.

“The gear that I made over 50 years ago is still efficiently used in many established and modern honey houses today.”

Truck Mounted Crane and Four-Hive Palletisation

The engineering innovations of Syme have not been limited to the honey house either. In the early ‘70s the business’s 1970 Bedford TK truck was fitted out with an attached oil crane controlled from the tip where hives were attached. Syme believes he had the first beekeeping truck in the world fitted to remove hives with such a crane. Following this innovation, others in the industry developed radio-controlled cranes.

When some 20 years later Symes Apiaries were among the first to incorporate four-hive palletisation of beekeeping operations, the truck crane innovation made a perfect pairing.

The 2000-hive business included large sites in the Mid Canterbury foothills for beech honey dew production to Germany. Then, when specialist seed cropping ramped up on the Canterbury Plains in the 1990s, beehives for pollination were in demand. More than ever, the Symes’ needed to be quickly geared up to move large numbers of hives easily twice yearly – overwintering on the dew for the first crop, shifting hives onto the Plains for seed crops and white clover honey flow, then back onto the foothills for the next dew crop.

“The income of exporting dew to Germany with prompt one-off payment, combined with increasing small seed production pollination contracts, was a dream come true for us,” Syme says.

It was at this stage that Syme designed pallets to accommodate four hives. Because of his earlier development of a truck-mounted hive crane, Symes Apiaries were able to promptly adapt and were amongst some of the first to use the four-hive palletisation concept.

Today’s Project

Syme’s workshop is still a busy place today and the 1970 TK Bedford still holds a prominent place – currently undergoing a complete mechanical overhaul that will leave it as good as the day it was bought new for $7500.

You needn’t look far to see that he and wife Daphne have the skills to undertake projects … a 1926 Essex four door sedan, in fine condition, provides the evidence. It was first bought by John’s grandfather David Syme, and has a refurbishment story of its own to tell.

Much to the horror of the Symes, during a heavy snow storm in 1973 the shed roof caved, resulting in a heavy beam landing on top of and squashing the whole right-hand side of their beloved two tonne Essex.

The radiator was crushed, the right front light had to be totally rebuilt and unavailable parts had to be made by John, while Daphne undertook a total remake of all the inside upholstery. The couple took three years to rebuild the vehicle during their spare time.

The Essex is now in road worthy condition and with 88,256 miles on the clock (thought to be second time round!) when I visit. It has been utilised for the weddings of two granddaughters.

It’s a long time since I have been in a 1926 vehicle, and, on the day of interview, I could not resist being driven by John from the homestead to the 1970s honey house to view the renovation of the Bedford. There he passed on some advice given by his father, and which seems to have helped encourage the beekeeper’s innovative engineering spirit.

“If something’s broken you can’t make it worse by trying to fix it”.

If you wish to discuss any aspect of this story with John and Daphne Syme, email:



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