The who, what, where and how of local honey

The traditional image of a beekeeper is a person in a large white suit. There have been numerous reasons posited why this is – so that they don’t get stung, so that they don’t look like black bears, etc.

But Frank Lacey, a man who has been a beekeeper for most of his life, doesn’t even bother with the suit most of the time.

“It’s not necessary,” he says whilst sitting at the kitchen table, hands folded together.

“I just go out in casual clothes. But I put the veil on.”

Frank has been a beekeeper since he was a boy, following in his father’s footsteps. Whilst he has been stung a couple of times in his youth – once so badly he was unconscious for hours – with age has come wisdom, and now he’s one of the best with bees.

The expertise of Frank has been called upon because of the controversies over ‘pure’ honey in the news. Capilano in particular has been smeared with controversial accusations of tampering with their honey, a claim that Frank finds ridiculous.

“Beekeepers own the company – it’s a co-op,” he argues.

“Almost all of the honey in South Australia and Victoria goes to Capilano, and then it goes on the shelves. That pure honey goes on the supermarket shelves. Why the hell would they want to adulterate it?”

If anyone knows honey, it’s Frank. His bees have produced both red gum and blue gum honey, and his bees roam across the South East, pollinating canola, clover, and lucerne.

“Each plant variety has its own flavour,” he explained. 

“And gums are affected by the seasons.”

As well as understanding the ins and outs of beehives, beekeepers need to have an understanding of the bush. They can tell if a drought will affect the flavour of next year’s honey, and in drought-stricken New South Wales, the beekeepers predicted trees dying before any other agriculturalists. 

“Beekeepers know what’s going to happen to trees before anyone else,” Frank said. 

“Our income depends on the trees.”

The South East is home to a number of beekeepers, due to the number of crops that need bees. 

But Frank has noticed a decline in full-time beekeepers, with many new beekeepers being hobbyists.

There are a multitude of reasons why this – being a beekeeper isn’t cheap, and there are many risks to bees, whether it’s sprays or the looming threat of the Varroa mite

And most importantly, the life of a beekeeper isn’t for the fainthearted. 

“You’ve got to love it,” Frank said.

“You’re on your own most of the time, and you keep late hours. You might be out all night with the bees. 

“A nice beach day also turns into a nice ‘bee’ day when the sun’s out. It’s a unique lifestyle.”

South Australia’s bee industry isn’t in dire straits yet though – there’s still a an air of optimism around crops that need bees, with massive acres of lucerne and canola in the Tatiara and multi-million dollar almond crops in the Riverland.

Hobbyists are often resourceful, with more and more hives being located on city roofs. And many established beekeepers are expanding their operations.

Before inspecting the honey shed and wax blocks, Frank explains the ins and outs of the bee trade.

One of the biggest misconceptions he’s come across is that people believe that there’s more than one queen in a hive, he explained as preamble.

But that’s not true – there’s only one queen. Now, a queen may be made within the hive naturally. A queen is made through being fed royal jelly, which gives it additional chromosomes (32 chromosomes compared to a drone, for example, which only has 12). 

Or, a queen can be bought. A queen bee in Australia ranges between $20-$23, and usually comes from New South Wales or Queensland. These queens can also be bought in bulk.

Whilst the name suggests luxury, the life of a queen is anything but. Her life if dictated by the other bees. If they want her to lay, they feed her. If they don’t want her to lay, they starve her. 

And if she can’t lay, they kill her.

“It’s pretty brutal,” Frank commented. 

“And that’s your twenty dollars gone.”

To introduce a new queen, she’s put into a ‘cage’ and to reach her, the other bees need to eat specially created candy. Once they reach the queen, she smells like the rest of the hive.

If a queen is introduced and she doesn’t smell like the hive, you’ve lost yourself another twenty.

If everything is going smoothly, then honey is produced in frames which have been placed into the hive prior. The frames are then taken out by gloved hands and put into an extractor, which spins out the viscous liquid. Some honey is also scraped out.

“Honey is one of the purest foods you can eat,” Frank said.

“It’s not touched by hand in any way.”

The honey shed itself is always kept sterile. Blocks of wax are also extracted in the shed, and are used for candles, cosmetics, etc.

One of the last bits of equipment on display is a smoker. Once again, there are some misconceptions about the purpose of a smoker, with Frank finding that most people think that smokers confuse or frighten bees. The smoke reminds them of bushfire, for example.

In reality, a smoker calms bees by disguising pheromones. When bees get agitated they release a pheromone that signals to other bees to attack. When they are coated with smoke, the signals get lost.

Honey season is coming up fast – it usually lasts from October to March, with hives buzzing in the sunnier months. But whether you buy it in a supermarket or a market, you can be sure of getting the pure stuff from our local beekeepers.