• Maggie James

The Reluctant Beekeeper

Geoff Bongard had no intention of becoming a beekeeper. Son Greg? no qualms – he wanted to beekeep! Maggie James travels to Ashburton Apiaries where she meets Geoff in a state of transition – gradually handing over the reins of management to his son, 40 years after launching the 1800 hive business. She learns of a career brushing shoulders with some of the most well-known names in the history of New Zealand beekeeping and which went from reluctance to over five decades of devotion, and continues on to a second generation.

Based in the Mid Canterbury town for which the company is named, the Bongards of Ashburton Apiaries are in a state of transition, with succession from Geoff to Greg in progress. Its 1800 double brood-box full-depth hives produce mainly bulk, clover, brassica and beech dew honey, extracted on site. Pollination contracts are brassicas and carrots. A significant number of five or six frame nucs are run all year.

Greg is fulltime in the business, with Geoff now a Jack of all trades. There are two full-time staff who both also have their own beehives. The business is well known in the area, and Geoff has family connections in Mid Canterbury, but his path in life and beekeeping started in the North Island.

Geoff Bongard of Ashburton Apiaries with their automated paraffin wax vat, capable of holding 12 full depth boxes. To avoid wax igniting, there is an enclosed diesel burner chamber below the paraffin tank fitted with a thermostat. If power goes off, the whole unit shuts down. Photo: Maggie James.

Family Influences

Geoff’s grandfather, the BNZ bank manager in Leeston, intended Geoff’s father to follow suit and he did so, briefly at BNZ Ashburton, then the Reserve Bank Wellington; where Geoff was born. Pre vaccination era, his father at age seven suffered severely from polio and treatment involved extensive scraping off the skin on foot soles. Therefore, standing as a bank teller caused extreme pain, subsequently ending this career and consequently for many years in Hastings, Geoff’s father was a driving instructor and taxi driver. It was back in the South Island where a beekeeping connection in the family was first established though.

“In 1950s Leeston, Bray & Gosset Ltd were one of the biggest beekeeping businesses in Mid Canterbury and the two partners, Jasper Bray and Arthur Gosset, were my uncles by marriage,” Geoff reminisces.

“They married two sisters, my aunts. Therefore, Peter Bray, Airborne Honey is my first cousin.”

Despite the connection to such a strong beekeeping family, it was another area of primary industry to which he turned his hand, commencing in 1969 a farm cadetship studying at Hamilton Polytech whilst working 70 hours per week on a dairy farm.

Geoff’s father despaired over his son’s long hours and pathetic wages. His previous banking experience told him Geoff would never own a house. Uncle Arthur decided Geoff needed to diversify and was adamant a beehive was required. However, the 17-year-old, highly terrified of bees, was a nonstarter for Uncle’s brainwave!

Gosset told Geoff to stop being silly, he would sort it! Consequently, Dudley Lorimer (father of Tony) supplied one hive, running this at the Cambridge dairy farm and assisting Bongard who insisted on being totally suited up when in the vicinity!

Lorimer was a great mentor, and his patient guidance soon came into play, unexpectedly. Drought struck, cows dried up, crippling the dairy industry. In 1973 Gosset suggested Bongard contact Ian Berry in Hawkes Bay at Arataki Honey, Havelock North.

“The Arataki Days”

“I was lucky. Ian Berry was another great mentor, and with my beekeeping wages triple that of dairying and less hours, suddenly I liked bees!” Geoff recalls.

“I recall being truck passenger, Havelock North to Taupo; where we met Rotorua Arataki staff, and this is when I first met Russell Berry (brother of Ian). Arataki Rotorua were in expansion mode, and we would spend a day or two working in the Rangitikei area. Bees on the volcanic plateau were a different breed – German, black, nasty, vicious. Fortunately, at Arataki Havelock North the bees were quite nice, and they had their own breeding programme.

“The return trip was 420 km, and we would drive back towing a trailer, the size of a milk tanker, containing extracted honey.”

Migration to the Mainland

“After three years with Ian Berry, with Arthur often suggesting working for Gosset & Bray, Ashburton branch, I migrated south working as a fulltime fill-in manager 1976 to 1981 managing 1800 hives. 200 hives would be sent to the West Coast for kamahi then promptly followed the southern rata flow. In those days kamahi was just a feed crop and these boxes were removed, then taken back to Ashburton for spring feed, but rata was extracted.”

The Bongard family have had a strong connection to well-established beekeeping entities, including Airborne Honey in Leeston where Greg Bongard and daughter Laila (centre) attended an event last year. Alongside are Jeff Lukey (Nelson, left) Robyn Davies (partner of Peter Bray), James Corson (Whitecliffs, right). Photo: Maggie James.

While the move south was ultimately a permanent one, the decision wasn’t made lightly. In 1970s New Zealand, travel was still often quite limited and expensive, as were landline toll calls (more so if they were longer than three minutes!), and there was less leave. Generally, regular letter writing was the main form of distant communication. It was a big thing to shift so far away from family and friends.

“My fiancée Angela was still in Napier and I went back especially for our wedding in 1976. For several years we lived in a cold little old cottage, requiring a bag of coal (70kg) weekly. 1979 we bought our first house,” Geoff says.

In 1981 Geoff worked four days on for his employer, then three days “off” managing his own 450 hives. In 1982 Bray & Gosset became Airborne Honey, and Geoff and Angela became totally self-employed as Ashburton Apiaries.

Then, in 1986 under Gosset’s business mentoring they expanded taking on board Arthur’s adamant comments – “You won’t get anywhere if you don’t use other people’s money, nor being a sole operator. It’s too tough if you get sick. Get someone else to do the work”.

“So, we moved to our current Ashburton site and got our first employee. Over the years we have been very lucky with quality staff,” Geoff says.

At first, when viewing their new property, which had been on the market twice, the house was very run down and surrounded by rubbish and Bongard didn’t recall it. However, upon entering the honey house he most certainly recalled at age eight or nine, when down on holiday to his Leeston Bongard grandparents, visiting Ashburton with Jasper Bray and picking up a full truckload of 60lb (just over 27kg) tins of honey for packing at Leeston. Tins were how beekeepers’ crops were purchased, prior to honey drum use. At that stage, brothers Roy and Ron Newton (uncles of Derek) owned the property, before vacating 12 years prior to the Bongards’ purchase.

The Next Generation

“When son Greg announced he would take up beekeeping, it was decided not to spend his first fulltime year with me,” Geoff explains of his son’s entry to the industry.

“It’s important to hear other’s viewpoints on life and see how they keep bees. So, Greg worked a season with stalwart Canterbury beekeeper John Syme.

“He then worked a season in Scotland, which he loathed – dark black grumpy bees, cold wet sunless season, trucks bogged, taking hives up to the moors for no heather honey reward.”

During Greg’s Scottish absence, Chris Berry, grandson of Ian and son of John, worked for Ashburton Apiaries, keeping the beekeeping connection between the families strong.

“On return, Greg was still keen on bees, but we thought an electrical apprenticeship prudent, prior to entering the business,” Geoff says.

SOME CURRENT INDUSTRY ISSUES – GB’S TAKE

More than ever before there are multiple major issues within beekeeping to react to and Geoff believes compliance regulations is one of them. In particular food and safety regulations, which he thinks are now way over the top compared to other industries. Consequently, the related costs are seriously crippling the industry, Bongard believes.

“Since 2010, Varroa has totally changed beekeeping, and it’s made beekeeping a hell of a lot more difficult. The next pathogen to present will make things even more horrendous,” he says.

“We manage each hive as a separate unit, not as a total apiary. Managing units as total apiaries in specific constraining time frames does not allow for the differences of time-consuming beekeeping issues that can vary from hive to hive in an apiary. An owner/operator can often easily make immediate decisions and rectify anomalies on the spot. And yes, this it might take a bit longer in an apiary than planned, but certainly pays dividends in the long run, improving hive health and production.”

Varroa and AFB are of course an ongoing concern, but Ashburton Apiaries keep on top of those problems and have found no AFB cases in their hives this season after taking strong action last season.

“For several years at one apiary we were getting an AFB hive per season. We spent a huge amount of time disease checking, then last season we had four cases at that apiary, source unknown. Constant checking stresses hives, making them less productive, and in that time we didn’t remove any honey. It was frustrating, time costly and non-productive. So, last season Greg and myself decided to cut our losses, with a sacrificial burning of the 12 remaining non-AFB hives, then deregistered the apiary site.”

Climate change is also concerning Geoff. In flash floods last year Ashburton Apiaries lost 100 insured hives, but it took a fair bit of discussion for payment and, even then, staff time was not recompensed. The team had to pick up gear from all over some farms, a frame here, a frame there!

Bongard believes many farming practises must go back to basics, and this will aid honey bee forage. He cites a world shortage of fertiliser with prices escalating to “unaffordable levels”, therefore farmers will need to increase clover production for economic nitrogen availability e.g. seed production or underrun pasture. Bongard predicts much Mid Canterbury dairying will disappear and the area revert to previous high yield seed and grain production levels. Whilst grains are not bee fodder, in the past clover reappeared after harvest, sprouting in fields, giving bees a second late lick of clover.

That’s all looking to the future though and it’s a future in which, for Ashburton Apiaries, son Greg will be steering the ship through totally different issues, having moved on site as of March 31. Meanwhile Geoff is settling into a new role … if not a new office.

“Angela and I have vacated the site, buying an excellent smaller property nearby. I will continue with company admin. A matter to work through is lack of an office,” Geoff says, adding “I’m under strict orders not to knock out or add walls to create one!”

Next month we visit Ashburton Apiaries honey house, queen rearing aspects, electrician Greg’s incubators, varroa management, planning for small hive beetle arrival, and workmate pranks!

To discuss any aspect of this story with Geoff Bongard, email geoff@ashburtonapiaries.co.nz


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