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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

Through Good & Bad – The Rawsons’ 5 Generations of Beekeeping, Business Survival & Diversification

To survive and evolve through beekeeping for over 100 years and now into a fifth generation a business must be adaptable, reacting accordingly to their environment. Whitestone Honey Ltd has proved that and, in the face of depressed honey prices, they are heeding the issue and undertaking pollen production, bees for live export, pollination, queen sales and even venom harvesting. Maggie James looks around the 3640-hive Oamaru based operation with owner Shane Rawson and chats with his skilled team about their varied tasks.

Shane Rawson is a hands-on owner-operator, and there is plenty to do. Whitestone Honey has plant based at Oamaru in North Otago and 46km further north in Waimate, South Canterbury. Will Sillibourne has been with the business for eight years and recently became a shareholder. Together they head a tight-knit staff of five at the Oamaru base, with Shane’s brother, Craig Rawson, overseeing Waimate operations.

Key members of the Whitestone Honey team in Oamaru. From left, Tim Burton, Will Sillibourne and Shane Rawson. Photo: Maggie James.

The Oamaru team expands to eight – usually with the help of backpacker labour – during peak-season. But, for the most part, it’s a team of Shane Rawson and two daughters, Madisyn (19 years-old) full-time and Skyla (16) part-time, Sillibourne, Tim Burton and Graham Selman getting around the hives, which span South, Central and North Otago to South Canterbury.

“We have always sold honey, we have never had high prices, but I pride myself on running a family business well,” Shane Rawson says.

“We must be a positive forward-thinking company, always thinking as to how we can make things financially better and sustainable. Unfortunately, with the challenges we face today, it is touch and go whether the beekeeping industry is financially viable.”

Generations in the Making

For the past 22 years, Rawson has headed his own beekeeping business and rode the highs and lows of the industry. The skills and knowledge to do that may just be in the blood though, with Shane the fourth consecutive generation of his family to keep bees in the region and now passing on knowledge to his children. Shane’s great-grandfather Alfred Rawson, having been gifted four or five hives as a wedding present in 1920, worked bees in the weekends and eventually built up to around 45 hives.

Alfred gained employment at an iconic local project – the building of the Waitaki Dam for hydroelectric generation. The project provided employment for 1200 men, using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows in the era of the Great Depression, between 1928 and 1934.

Alfred’s son, Jack Rawson, grandfather of Shane, also kept bees and his business survived through some tough beekeeping years in the ‘50s and ‘60s when government restrictions on honey sales crippled many operations.

By the time of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Jack’s sons Allan, Bob and Bruce had got hives of their own and, merging with their father’s 300, they took the family beekeeping business to the next level. As a trio they ran 3000 hives, 1000 in South Canterbury, 1000 in North Otago and another 1000 further south in Heriot, the site of disaster for the business in the ‘70s.

The Heriot honey house succumbed to fire with the effect worsened by the industry having suffered low honey prices for the past three years at the time. The outcome, 1000 hives in South Canterbury were sold and Allan began work as a coach mechanic, while brothers Bob and Bruce managed the remaining 2000 hives.

The beekeeping-urge clearly never left Allan though, and 25 years later, in the 1990s when clover honey was paying $2.95/kg, he bought out an Oamaru beekeeper with 400 hives and Shane Rawson’s father was back in business.

In 2001 Shane and his cousin Grant would become the fourth generation of their family to tend hives in the district when, at a local meeting of the National Beekeepers’ Association, the branch president announced that, now varroa had arrived in Auckland, he would exit the industry. There and then the cousins took on half of the fleeing beekeeper’s business each. As recently as last year Grant was still running 700 hives as Ardgowan Apiaries but, when a vehicle accident tragically took his life, Whitestone Honey took over the hives.

Beekeeper Will Sillibourne has been with Whitestone Honey in Oamaru for the past eight years, following extensive beekeeping experience in Bay of Plenty and Southland.

Come in Will

For the past eight years Will Sillibourne has worked with the Rawsons. He came to the region with extensive experience, having started out in the industry in Te Puke helping with honey extraction outside of school hours. For 16 years his family held a half share in a business there, before a move to Southland and now Oamaru, where he recounts an early meeting with Rawson.

“When I first met Shane, he said he had some good sites he could give up to me straight away! My query was, ‘why are you giving up sites?’. And the reply? … ‘argh, because they’re no good’!”

The sense of humour was obviously not lost on Sillibourne and now he counts himself a shareholder in Whitestone Honey and a key cog in making the multi-faceted business tick.

Hive Setup

Rawson and his team are clearly passionate about what they do and speak freely about some of the techniques and tactics they use to make their hives as productive as possible.

Single brood boxes are preferred, to make AFB checks quicker and easier. Hives are four per pallet, to assist hive movements – which are mainly required for cherry pollination in spring. Inside the hive, they are moving away from wooden frames towards plastic.

Honey Production and Day Tripping

Honey varietals produced comprise mainly clover, pasture, kanuka and canola. The honey is sold in bulk, with canola kept back to support live bee shipments.

This past season, due to costs and the sporadic Westland rata and kamahi flows of the previous three seasons, Whitestone decided not to move hives that far west. Murphy’s Law prevailed though and there was a good kamahi flowering not taken advantage of.

Hives traditionally moved into South Westland are those which have been pulled off cherry pollination. At this time of year (late spring) the ‘migratory team’ of Rawson and Sillibourne get a day trip to Haast – six hours there and six back, with eight hours work in the middle!

They also produce some comb honey, which is trucked to a Mid Canterbury beekeeper for cutting and packing.

Cherry Pollination

The growth of cherry orchards in Otago in recent years has been extensive and Whitestone Honey play a key role in the flourishing industry. Yearly, in the second half of September, 500 full depth double brood-box hives are moved to Cromwell, Central Otago, for cherry pollination – the only time of the year double brood boxes are used. The aim is for a 14 day stay, but in the last two years, due to weather not suitable for bee flights, these have been 21-day contracts.

Cherries are a poor source of pollen and nectar and, combined with net cover for about half the hives, the colonies must be extremely strong. They go in with a supplemented liquid protein as well as a pollen patty, having previously foraged on excellent pussy willow nectar and pollen. During this contract the landowner does not mow grass, which is under run with dandelion to provide highly nutritious pollen and nectar towards contract end. The hives do come out strong, but not as strong as they went in, Rawson says.

Once off the cherries the double brood boxes are split. The old queen is knocked on the head and both boxes are requeened with Italian stock, one with an emerging queen cell, the other a mated laying caged queen. If honey production in Westland is to be undertaken, these split hives will be utilised in that region.

Live Bee Supply for Export

Another 15kgs of bulk bees set to go for export to Canada. Bulk bee supply, undertaken from February to April, has provided an important revenue stream for Whitestone Honey during the current honey industry downturn.

During the current honey industry recession the live bee export market has been a Godsend to Whitestone, who supply live bee exporter SJA Honey, based in Northern Auckland.

“In January we start sending caged mated laying queens, via NZ Post, to our bulk bee buyer who banks our stock. Then from 20 February to 20 April our bulk bees are sent. The weekly goal is 150-200 kg. From all hives, bar 800 odd, we start pulling as much as 2kg per hive. Two days prior, miticide strips have been put in these ‘donor’ hives,” Rawson explains.

Generally, Whitestone rely on visual inspection to assess varroa. However, when it comes to their export bulk bees, donor hives undergo alcohol washes at the time of bee-harvest, and levels are recorded.

The bees are transferred to brand new “bins”, the equivalent size of three full depth honey supers, in which they will ultimately travel with miticide strips. Each hold 15kg of bees, which must be kept alive for their 96-hour journey, first via road and ferry to Auckland, then aeroplane flight to Canada. The middle box also holds three or four full-depth frames of canola honey, and four bins fit to a pallet. Until the bins are transferred to a chiller truck in Christchurch, they are sprayed twice daily with water to cool them off.

Pollen trapping and collection is an important part of the diverse Whitestone Honey operation and nearly half of their 3640 hives are fitted with traps each season.

Pollen Production

As if the honey and bulk bee harvest wasn’t enough to keep the hard-working Whitestone Honey team busy, they are also one of New Zealand’s major pollen producers. From 1500 of their hives they can produce 15-20 tonne of pollen a year to a buyer who supplies health foods, with lower grades going into bird feed mixes.

“This production does impact on our honey crop. We trap all season with a diverse continuous supply of pollen,” Rawson says.

About thirty years ago, when Shane’s father got back into beekeeping he designed a trapping system which he honed over the next 10 years, still in use by his sons today.

Twice weekly, in season, the pollen team of Tim Burton and Graham Selman will empty the traps, colour coding the pollen as they go. Once dried and cleaned it is poured into cardboard A4 storage boxes, simply marked with a pen ‘B’ (for brown), ‘Y’ for yellow, etc, and sent in batches of one tonne so the packer can colour and homogenise to their preference.

With valuable pollen being taken away from the bee colonies, in May the hives receive outsourced high protein pollen supplements to prepare them for winter.

Bee Venom

In the past more extensive bee venom harvesting has been undertaken by Sillibourne to be sold for use in beauty products. However, currently only 5-10gm per year is produced.

Varroa Lessons

Varroa was first detected in New Zealand in 2000, but it wasn’t until 2010 that it reared its ugly head in North Otago. At the time Rawson found himself with difficulty attempting to obtain information on the mite. Fortunately, Whitestone had been supplying nuc colonies for kiwifruit pollination to Mark and Sheree Silson, KiwiCoast Apiaries, at Katikati, to whom Rawson is grateful.

“Without this couple we would not be here today,” he says frankly.

“The Silsons taught me the beekeepers’ side of varroa and treatment, and I was able to learn about the difficulties they had faced.”

Over a decade on, Whitestone use only proprietary manufactured miticide strips and, to date, they have done the job well. This is aided by minimal migratory beekeeping, plus their queen bee rearing operation having brood breaks. Due to the broodless period, they find that their hives do not have virus overloads.

Conditions appear to work in their favour regarding other pests too.

“We don’t get giant wax moth – it’s too cold here, particularly with the southern Pacific Ocean wind, and when small hive beetle arrives in New Zealand, I hope that it will also dislike our climate!” Rawson says.

While that may be the case, it is obviously a climate the Rawson family have found to their liking, for seven generations since 1862, and there’s more to their beekeeping story too. So, next month we head 46km north to Waimate, to visit Craig Rawson and the Whitestone Honey extraction plant and queen bee rearing operation.

To discuss any aspect of this story with Shane Rawson email


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