Beekeeping in Tasmania: A Profile by Noel Ponthieux

 

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Life is Sweet at the End of the World

Mawbanna, Tasmania (Australia)—High-spirited and well-travelled, Nicola Charles never dreamed she’d come back to this remote, forested area and marry a beekeeper. Or give up her successful nursing career to run the office, marketing and processing sides of Blue Hills Honey, her husband’s family business. But, she shrugs, it’s a good life.

“If you want Ferraris and condos, you don’t go into beekeeping,” Nicola muses over cups of tea after giving several visitors a tour of the Blue Hills Honey packing facility and warehouse.

Easygoing but keen to give us the whole story, she laughs often, occasionally pushing a strand of dark auburn hair back into its ponytail. “We’re never going to make a fortune, but we have quality of life, raise families, do what we want to do. It’s a flexible lifestyle, so we can go to trade shows in Melbourne and Hong Kong…but it’s always nice coming home, driving over those hills.”

Ponthieux 3Those hills are situated in northwest Tasmania near the coast and the pristine Tarkine Forest. Tasmania’s northwest coast is often called “the end of the world” because the sea west of Tasmania flows uninterrupted until it washes the coast of Argentina, half a world away. That means air travels 16,000 kilometers across nothing but the Southern Ocean and the Arctic before it arrives at the Tasmanian coast and sweeps over the island as immaculate wind and rain. It is truly the purest air on earth.

The climate, the water, and the Tarkine Forest itself all add the savor of an unspoiled terroir to the Charles family’s honey. The Tarkine is the world’s second-largest temperate rainforest,  stretching over 117,870 acres, and Blue Hills operates the only apiary in its abundantly blossoming wilds. In fact, their beekeeping team comprises 10 of the 20 people who are even allowed access to the area each year.

Tasting the Tarkine: Leatherwood and manuka

Nicola, head beekeeper Robbie and their team produce leatherwood, Tasmanian manuka, meadow, blackberry, and prickly box honey using modern but small-scale production techniques. Leatherwood honey is their flagship product, its bright floral notes anchored by a caramel richness that lingers pleasantly on the back of your tongue. The ancient Leatherwood tree grows exclusively in Tasmania’s wild, remote Tarkine rainforest, where it originated nearly 65 million years ago. Its delicate pink and white blossoms appear briefly between January and March to release a fast flow of deep-gold aromatic honey.Ponthieux 1

“Leatherwood honey flows flat out,” Nicola says, “but the manuka flow is totally different: long, slow, small. We keep the bees tighter and warmer, with one small box on them. It’s longer and harder for the bees, and the honey is tougher to extract from the frames as well. We can run manuka frames through the cold extraction machine twice, and still have to scrape the honey out manually. That’s if the manuka honey is flowing at all. One year you get plenty, the next you get a small to medium flow, and the third year you get nothing. That’s just what nature does! We brought in just 15 tonnes last year (2012), and this year we have none.”

The Charleses only discovered manuka on their patch in 2009, from what they believed were simple wildflowers growing head-height near one of the Tarkine’s sweeping plains. “We took wildflower honey to a honey buyer, he tested it, said ‘that’s manuka honey, I want it!’—and he bought the whole lot!” Nicola remembers.

Despite the difficulties in harvesting and extracting manuka, it opens another worthwhile market for the family enterprise. Manuka honey is highly sought after for its antibacterial properties, which derive from the manuka flower’s high concentration of a compound called methylglyoxal (MGO). The naturally occurring antibacterial factor in Tasmanian manuka honey ranges in concentration from 30–550 MGO; Blue Hills’ manuka honey MGO goes up to 500+.

Head beekeeper Robbie and his team of six beekeepers breed, monitor, and transport bees for up to 1,800 hives located throughout the temperate Tarkine rainforest. At harvest time—“as soon as that scent’s in the air”—they literally go with the flow, packing up 80,000–100,000 bees and moving them late at night. In the morning, the hives are positioned at the sites of honey flows, and by the next day, beekeepers place frame-filled honey boxes on top of the hives to catch the honey flow. The large, Full Depth honey boxes can hold up to 20-30 kilos of honey, but the rate of flow depends largely on the type of honey as well as environmental conditions.

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Generation B

When Robbie’s father, Reuben Charles, launched his bulk honey business in 1955, he may not have envisioned crafting gourmet brands for high-end markets—but the transition to artisanal producer has made Blue Hills a business that can grow in harmony with the next generation.

Nicola traces the history: “Robbie’s grandfather kept bees as a hobby; then his father and mother expanded the hobby into madness up to 1,600 hives. Robbie’s mum and dad started the bulk honey business, and Robbie’s been working alongside his dad since he was 14. He picked up a lot of the traditional beekeeping skills season through season.

“Now, I was away from Mawbanna for 20 years, working as an intensive care nurse in Hobart, Melbourne and London. I came back to visit…bought a bottle of red wine on New Year’s Eve…and next thing I’m marrying the boy next door from all those years ago!”Ponthieux 4

When asked about the long-term view, Nicola is positive but philosophical. “Fate has a lot to do with where we go. We just want to be the best beekeepers we can, make the best product that we can, and have happy customers and happy staff. It’s a combination of the right equipment, careful monitoring, and knowledgeable handling by a few well-trained people.” A sudden thought brings out a chuckle. “Even if Robbie left beekeeping professionally, he’d still keep a few hundred hives out in the bush, so he’d have something to do in the bees if we have an argument. He often laments, as an old beekeeper told him, ‘One day, boy, you will know why we keep bees.’”

Clearly, Nicola and Robbie could write the book on beekeeping in the Tasmanian wild. “I haven’t the time!” she protests, but as her guests help clear away the teacups, they suspect she’ll find a way.

Noel PonthieuxAbout the Author: Originally from New Orleans, Noël Ponthieux writes for love or money in Portland, Oregon. She’s currently working on a novel featuring Napoleon vs. the pirate Jean Lafitte.

Photos:
Beekeepers in action: Nicola Charles
Bees & leatherwood flowers: Kylie Sheahen Photography
Robbie & Nicola with Blue Hills Honey: The Advocate 

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