• Maggie James

The Rewarding Road to Kirwee Bees

Everyone’s road to beekeeping is different and for Kirwee Bees owner Glynn Cleaver, despite close family connections to the industry, it took a violent shake and some mental anguish for him to land with 600 hives. He’s embedded in the industry now though, with the Cleaver’s family business in Canterbury producing honey under their own label, mated queens for sale, plus nucs and hives for smaller scale beekeepers … all while providing employment spanning four generations of the family!

By Maggie James

Glynn Cleaver had a close connection to beekeeping from the start. He didn’t spend much time at school. Instead, as a kid, his uncle’s extraction plant held more interest. His first job at 5 years-old was sticking Honey Marketing Authority levy stamps on honey lids!

The now-46-year-old’s grandfather and uncles were farmers and beekeepers, with hives around the Molesworth and Kaikoura areas, and his maternal grandparents always had a couple of hives in their Christchurch backyard.

Despite the early connection with the honey industry, it wasn’t Cleaver’s first career and for a number of years he was a roading contractor operating in the Porters and Arthur’s Pass areas as a “2IC” for Fulton Hogan. Like many who lived in the Christchurch area though, February 22, 2011 proved a fateful day.

Glynn Cleaver has built a beekeeping business that spans four generations at Kirwee Bees, while offering a diverse range of services to fellow beekeepers. Photo: Maggie James.

Shaken, but Stirred to Beekeep

When the 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit, Fulton Hogan immediately deployed staff and machinery to Christchurch. Within two hours of the first afternoon shake, Cleaver found himself in the city as a first responder for body recovery, as everything continued to shake.

After those operations ceased, he did go back working at Arthur’s Pass, but with great difficulty due to lingering post-traumatic stress disorder. Work and dealing with family life, which included three children, was difficult and eventually wife Alissa delivered a blunt ultimatum: “Find a new job or piss off!”

He decided on the former! Thus, two bee hives were acquired and Cleaver, reverting to a previous path in life, learned how to “breathe” again.

A Family Affair

The hive numbers rapidly increased and now Kirwee Bees is a family business, operating 600 hives, over-wintering a substantial number of full-depth six frame nucs, selling mated queens, and undertaking pollination contracts. The Cleavers also extract and pack under NP1, marketing their own Kirwee Bees honey, while Glynn carries out contract AP2 work for the American Foulbrood Management Agency and Honey Bee Exotic Surveillance.

The enthusiastic Kirwee Bees team spans four generations – Glynn and Alissa, their children Jack (13 years-old), Max (11) and Rex (10), along with super “Nan” (Alissa’s 86-year-old grandmother who works a 40+ hour week) and Alissa’s brother Paul.

Often buses bring older generations out for the day to visit Kirwee Bees’ honey shop and picnic under the trees.

“86-year-old Nan likes looking after these old people – many of whom might be 20 years younger than herself!” Cleaver muses

Alissa is a dab hand at woodwork, with hexagonal display shelving, and benches in their shop beautifully finished as evidence of this.

Adding Value

“Currently, to survive in this business you must do everything yourself and add value,” Cleaver says.

Kirwee Bees mould their own wax cell cups for use in their queen breeding operation.

“Pollination contracts are radish and Asian greens. Our honey is labelled as to the area it was produced, giving individuality for our customers with extraction and packing in site batches by ourselves under NP1.”

When honey supers are removed for extraction, each box has a duct tape patch with the hive number, and this box goes back to that hive as a wet to control potential spread of disease.

“We sell honey on site, at farmers’ markets and via retail outlets. The onsite shop doubles very nicely as a tutorial room for hobbyists. Alissa produces wax candles, stick deodorants and lip balms.”

The sale of mated queens and nuc colonies gives added diversity to Kirwee Bees’ business, along with sales to hobbyist beekeepers of full-depth and ¾ supers and nuc boxes, plus feeders. Wood is cut and planed themselves for this equipment.

“We produce and sell mated laying queens. Our queen orders to the North Island are delivered personally by myself, and in August I will fly up with our first order – 100 autumn-mated laying queens. We rely on word of mouth for the success of the queen business.”

As for the nuc sales to beginners, well they only go to suitable suitors.

“I hate setting people up to fail,” Cleaver explains.

“The thought of AFB nucs keeps me awake at night. So, our nucs only go to people that have come and worked a day with me, or until they are proficient. Sometimes a potential buyer doesn’t get a nuc, some decide it’s just not for them. The new beekeeper brings their ready-to-go-starter hive purchased from a beekeeper supplier. They have already seen their nuc colony and queen, and worked it. When they leave with their starter hive there are three to four frames of brood, four drawn out frames including stores, plus a new queen, and miticide strips. I point out, that if you can’t afford strips, you can’t afford bees.”

Cleaver has followed Randy Oliver’s opinions on oxalic acid treatments and makes and uses his own strips. In addition to that, when he sees mites a 240volt ProVap oxalic acid vaporiser is used. While he admits he’s “had a few disasters”, they now have a system working well. However, he recommends beginners stick to registered treatments.

Stock Selection and Mating

When Kirwee Bees started up they bought in mated queens which Cleaver decreed as “absolute rubbish” in terms of production and temperament.

Glynn Cleaver has been experimenting with instrumental insemination on his own queens, while maintaining open mating in his saleable mated queens. On the left is Kirwee Bees’ portable drone semen collector used in the field to reduce risk of contamination. Right is the more expensive Habro insemination syringes and equipment. Photo Maggie James.

“I had the privilege to work with bees pre-varroa in shorts and t-shirts, and pre-Carnie mating with Italian bees. We needed to get better stock and take the issue into our own hands, if we were to make money,” Cleaver says.

“We use the more manageable Italian stock. All our queen bees and our hives are numbered in manual records. Therefore, the genealogy of all queens produced is traceable back three to four generations. When I inspect a hive I do a running commentary on its attributes and Nan is there with her book and pen noting the queen and hive traits. Each yard has its own separate handwritten folder.

“I recognise that a colony is managed via pheromones. We select superior stock of Italian strain because it lacks the aggressive defensive behaviour and is much better suited to Canterbury. They are good at pollen and nectar hoarding and disease resistance, all leading to big strong hives.”

Cleaver puts major emphasis on drone production and recording to maintain good stock lines. Kirwee Bees works with a few beekeepers with whom they swap stock. Also, 13-year-old Jack has become a swarm chaser, currently running 30 hives himself. These colonies are closely monitored and recorded for disease and potential drone selection.

“It’s hard to guarantee matings, so I flood areas with my top drones. I really focus on drone production at mating sites. It is harder and harder to get quality open-matings in Canterbury, particularly in the last five years with Carnie crosses about.”

Kirwee Bees’ incubator, adapted from a wine cooler and with three levels of storage to house queen cells, escort bees and virgin queens, and equipped with a water system to control humidity and coloured lights to act as a temperature alarm. The wooden queen cell holders in front have heavy plastic net bases to contain virgins and easily observe if a cell has hatched.

The Grafting Yard

Cleaver uses the Cloake board method in his grafting yard. Hives are full depth boxes, comprising two bottom brood boxes, with a top box of capped brood. There is mainly capped brood and not much larvae in the top box, then the next week these frames are cycled down. In each hive on a graft there are 40 cells, comprising two bars. Cleaver believes that the frames of open nectar and pollen are best next to the grafted cells.

“There is no such thing as too much royal jelly in grafted cells. If there is no royal jelly, the queen will be malnourished.”

On Day five the capped cells are removed and it’s off to the wine chiller! Fear not, it’s been revamped into an incubator with an airtight seal, wooden vented shelves and a sophisticated temperature controller bought off AliExpress. The bottom shelf holds a humidity producer with water at 60-68% humidity. An alarm beeps if humidity is 58% or lower.

The top shelf holds queen cells, with homemade wooden cell bars to capture emerging virgin queens. In the middle shelf are Nicot cages with newly-emerged escort nurse bees, which are caged one day prior to queen cell emergence. A virgin less than 24 hours old is added to each Nicot cage and attendants, then placed into three frame nucs to be eventually on-sold. By adding these virgins to a nuc, instead of a queen cell, Cleaver estimates he is saving a trip to the nuc yard every third week, because he doesn’t have to check that the queen cell has emerged, nor the quality of the virgin. All mated queens are traceable and each queen has a hive number which can be traced back to written records.

The incubator temperature is set to stay stable to within 0.5⁰C, and is equipped with a nifty alarm system. If things aren’t working properly and the temperature drops below 32⁰C the usually stable blue light is replaced with a red flashing light.

Instrumental Insemination

In 2018 Cleaver was fortunate to attend a New Zealand workshop for a few days led by Sue Cobey, acknowledged international authority in the field of instrumental insemination (II) and honey bee breeding, and stock improvement. The technique captured his interest and the Kirwee beekeeper still keeps in contact with the American expert.

He doesn’t think that II is the answer for mass production. However, Cleaver is instrumentally inseminating some queens for Kirwee Bees use only. That is, until he has proven his method of selection, written records, his ideologies on the use of C0₂ and attendant workers, are correct.

Bring on Spring

So, there is usually plenty going on at Kirwee Bees. However, the day I visit in mid-June it’s particularly cold – just 2⁰C at 3pm – and Cleaver is in the mode of contemplating winter work for the next day: splitting a massive wood pile for the local food bank. Not far away though, farm gorse hedges are flowering profusely with pollen, and he is eagerly contemplating next week and the start of hive stimulation feeds for drone production …

It’s a long way from working the roads of Arthur’s Pass and the rubble of a devastating earthquake, and it seems like he can breathe again just fine.

To discuss any aspect of this story with Kirwee Bees email kirweebees@yahoo.co.nz

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