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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

The Dynamic Dunedin Duo

With diversity at its core, Bee Supplies Otago strongly connects owners Murray and Heidi Rixon to the local beekeeping industry. From Murray’s work as an AP2 inspector, to a contract extraction facility, sales of nucs, queen cells, virgin and mated queens, and even an educational aspect to the business, plus local sale of beekeeping equipment, there are few beekeepers at the bottom of the south who wouldn’t have crossed paths with the energetic husband and wife. Maggie James explores what motivates the industrious beekeeping couple.

By Maggie James.

Murray Rixon. From one hive, to 400 at his peak, plus contract extraction, equipment supply, AP2 work, public education on beekeeping and queen sales – the humble honey bee keeps the Otago apiarist busy.

Ten years ago Murray Rixon wanted some honey bees. One hive was acquired, then it became two, then five, which became seven and so forth until peaking at 400 hives, with wife Heidi also taking up the hive tool. Stories of fast-expanding beekeeping businesses are not unique, but how many extend into contract extraction, all manner of queen sales, hiveware supply, plus an on-site beekeeping education room?

These days they have settled at 40 hard-working hives to support their cell and queen raising venture, but initially a large portion of the “beekeeping endeavour” were hives in the greater Dunedin city area. They peaked at 90 of their 400 hives in various gardens and schools. A key principle was that a customer got their own honey out of the beehive and would help extract their own honey for an hour each year.

Extraction Action

“We sold off the bee rental business three years ago, but continue to extract honey for South Island beekeepers,” Murray Rixon explains.

“The smallest batch might be only two frames, or up to 550 boxes. The latter came in over a period of two months.

“It is most important beekeepers get their own honey back, no matter how small or big the quantity is. Honey is not tanked or held in pooled volumes. The recipient can be confident that it is their honey.”

Otago bee breeder Heidi Rixon loves the placid temperament of her Italian bee stock. She may not require a full bee suit, gloves or shoes, however, this writer encourages wearing a bee suit, until the beekeeper is certain that going without protective gear is a safe practise for themselves and their bees. Photo: Murray Rixon

Varietals extracted are clover, thyme, kamahi, mānuka and bush honey and most honey supers arrive in cars or vans to a covered internal trucking bay. From there the hot room holds 150 full-depth supers for two days at 30⁰C. The floor is not heated, hot air is circulated, and each layer of supers has 15mm₂ wooden spacer sticks between boxes.

In the extraction room, they have done away with the traditional uncapping machine.

“We use a New Zealand manufactured Boutelje honey loosener (pricker) and extractor can. The loosener is a wonderful device that replaces the capping machine, and is safer, quieter and compact. We wanted minimalist space, so everything is shiny stainless steel, and off the floor.”

The holding tanks have electric motors and there is a range of honey creaming tanks. Creamed honey volumes range from a hobbyist with 2kg, to 2000kg for commercial operators.

From Scotland with Love – and Parrots

Born in Mosgiel, Otago, Rixon is not far from home at their current base on the Taieri Plain, but it took a stint in Scotland, where he met Heidi, before returning home to take up beekeeping.

After leaving school at 16, Rixon spent 10 years working for the Dunedin Botanic Gardens, building a good proportion of the rock gardens. An overseas stint followed at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh where, for 10 years, he specialised in high altitude alpine plants from around the world. Then came another decade stint on a UK property which included involvement in a large breeding programme for – of all things – high-value, large, royal-blue, hyacinth macaw parrots.

Heidi’s story

“I was raised in Scotland and on leaving high school I undertook a degree in drama, but upon graduation I found I was totally unemployable,” Heidi says of her background.

The Bee Supplies Otago extraction room doubles as an educational facility for visiting school groups and tourists. Photo: Maggie James.

However, she did manage to secure a job on a certain UK property growing rhododendrons, propagating plants and… breeding parrots under Murray’s supervision. She also needed somewhere to live, and moved in with Murray, making her totally unsackable! The pair have been together since.

Children followed and, when they were six and eight years old, it was decided to shift to New Zealand for a better-quality family life. After a short stint in Mosgiel, came a move to their current Taieri Plains property.

“Our property and lifestyle are ever evolving – it’s like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle moving in every direction, with lots of opportunity to do stuff,” Murray says.

Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ‘em

The dominant part of that lifestyle is the couple’s love for beekeeping, which came to Murray first, but then, as her husband’s hive numbers grew, Heidi started seeing less of him. She decided the best option was to become a beekeeper also.

Out of necessity, when queen supply became unreliable, Heidi started producing Italian queens for their operation, and has done so now for over 10 years, whilst surrounding herself and learning from quality, experienced beekeepers. Over that time Heidi has refined every aspect of her queen cell and queen bee production.

In approximately 2017/18, over a two year period, Murray, alongside Dr Otto Hyink, worked for Betta Bees Research Ltd, based at Invermay. Rixon’s work involved collecting semen from many different colonies, which was used for artificial insemination of queen bees.

In the Hives

Bee Supplies Otago brood-boxes are full-depth, either one or two boxes, dependent on location and time of year. Generally, hives are wintered down as one brood box, reflecting the severity of Otago winters. The Rixons regard full-depth honey supers as too heavy, so ¾-depth are used.

In the past the couple supplied nucleus colonies to large scale beekeepers throughout New Zealand, but these days the business has scaled back to fit in with their desired lifestyle. Now, the focus is on supplying virgin queens of Italian stock, mainly to hobbyist and semi-commercial beekeepers. Queen cells and mated laying caged queens are also sold, but to a lesser extent.

The grafting yard comprises 30 mostly full-depth double brood-box hives, separated with a queen excluder at times. High protein pollen sources required to produce quality queen cells include gorse on nearby hillsides, native fuchsia and flaxes, plus paddocks underrun with white clover.

During the season, wearing a head torch for illumination, grafting is undertaken two days weekly, generally in the honey house. The grafting time of the day varies, and the number of larvae grafted varies according to orders to be filled. The starter hive is usually completely queenless, and consists of a corflute nuc box, into which have been shaken a large volume of nurse bees. The nuc is ideal, because Heidi can help control conditions inside, such as shifting it to a shady spot on hot days.

The Rixons’ homemade grafting stand, designed to elevate and secure the frame and hold a cell bar.

The grafted frame holds two bars, each with approximately 17 lugged Beetek polypropylene cell cups. Heidi regards grafting day as ‘day one’ and the new graft remains in the starter for 36 hours, then the frame and bars are transferred as one unit to a finisher hive. On day eight the cells are removed from the finisher, to a chicken incubator, in which they hatch into a hair roller cage. One end of the roller is blocked with the lugged cell, the other end with queen candy. Virgins are collected or mailed to beekeepers as promptly as possible, either same day or, if hatched overnight, next day.

To fit in with an ethos of not using any single use plastics anywhere in their operation, Heidi recycles used cell cups by cleaning them in hot water and washing detergent.

“I don’t call myself a commercial beekeeper, I like to call myself a hobbyist because I thoroughly enjoy what I do,” she says.

“Over the years, I have gradually weeded out any stock that is not suitable, and when working our bees I only use bare hands and do not require a smoker. We get school groups and busloads of tourists visiting, so we must be extremely confident that our bees are not going to chase people!”

Why the visitors? That’s because there is a lot to take in at the Rixons’ various beekeeping enterprises, so, next month, we will explore Murray’s excellent AFB detection efforts as an AP2, plus delve deeper into their sustainability efforts, including a rotating solar panel and huge greenhouse…

To discuss any aspect of this story with Murray or Heidi Rixon, email beesuppliesotago@gmail.com

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