The Vastly Experienced Beekeeper Making Thames Club Click
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With 45 years’ experience – and counting – as a commercial beekeeper, John Bassett has a wealth of knowledge to share and that is exactly what he is doing. The 78-year-old not only provides hives and a central site for Thames Bee Club’s benefit, but also regular mentorship to go with them. Bassett’s has been a career dedicated to the diverse skills of beekeeping, from honey production, commercial queen rearing and fruit pollination, to being the founding chairperson of what is now the UMF Honey Association. Now, he takes time to share his experiences here.
“A good Sunday afternoon job” is how Bassett describes the task of going through the hives with fellow Thames Bee Club members each weekend. For an apiarist of his vast experience it’s “not an onerous task”, but rather one he says he has come to find very rewarding since taking on the role of club mentor last year.
The club started as a discussion group which gathered in the community gardens over the road from Bassett’s Kereta Bees headquarters in Thames. It is still a rather informal gathering, but has taken on far more meaning since they began regular hive inspections across the road with Bassett.
“Without John we wouldn’t have the club,” says club coordinator Jill Pauling.
“He is the key man for a lot of people and he gives up a lot of time to the newbees. He’s in his late 70s, but still gets around and is very active. He thinks he is a semi-commercial beekeeper, but we would all call him commercial.”
Kereta Bees has around 300 hives and is co-owned by fellow Thames beekeeper Jason Parkes who “does the lion’s share of the heavy lifting”, according to the 78-year-old. Bassett says his role is more focused on organising the hive work these days.
For many decades it was Bassett carrying a heavy load himself though, forming Waitomo Honey in Te Kuiti in 1977 and running up to 2000 hives across the King Country and Coromandel, while employing a range of beekeepers over the years.
“There were some tough times financially in the early years, but, in the finish, it has been very rewarding. It's a great lifestyle,” Bassett says of his 45-year commercial beekeeping career.
Waitomo Honey hives were put to work in the kiwifruit orchards of the area, while a queen breeding unit also formed part of the business. After the introduction of varroa to New Zealand in the early 2000s, Bassett began to downsize. He sold the larger Waitomo Honey business to move into his semi-retirement in the Coromandel around a decade ago, but not before playing a key role in the UMF marketing programme.
When Kiwi manuka honey producers came together to form the Active Manuka Honey Association in 1997, Bassett was elected chairperson. The Association was renamed Unique Manuka Factor Honey Association in 2010 and continues to this day to be a leading marketer of manuka honey globally using their UMF rating.
"The first few years were a slow grind,” Bassett says of the late-90s marketing campaign, which eventually “self-advertised” when consumers learned of manuka honey’s antimicrobial properties.
“Then, after five or six years, more professional people were able to come in and run it, because I had no professional training on that sort of thing. That really was exciting times and now it's a very big setup, as the UMF Honey Association.”
Helping build the manuka honey industry is in Bassett’s past though. Now, a big part of his beekeeping present and future is the Sunday sessions with the local club. While teaching he has taken to leading his in-hive lessons with minimal protection against potential bee stings.
“I've been working with bees for the hobbyists largely just in a hat, no veil and sleeves up. It's about instilling confidence in being near a hive without being in a whitebating net and welding gloves! They see more and they get the idea of how your hives can be managed while you're working, without all hell breaking loose and causing trouble for the people over the fence,” he says.
Then during the week it’s back to work for Bassett, but with his succession plan and business partner waiting in the wings.
“I'll keep going for a little bit yet, but eventually Jason will take over completely, we will sell him the rest of the business and I’ll drift off into the sunset somewhere,” Bassett foretells, adding “I just hope it will be a nice ride”.