On this day there were some staff helping out, and watching the bunch get into the zone and work through the hives was a fascinating experience for sure. It is a very physical and repetitive process, with hive boxes weighing in at 40 KG peak honey flow.
The seasonal change is still a tad volatile so we were not able to get deeper into the mountains with recent floods, tree fall and boggy paddocks and trails. Their 4WD actually got stuck on the way to meet with me and they had to be pulled out by the generous farmer. I could not help as my Toyota van is rear wheel drive and gets stuck on wet grass, never mind mud! The two locations we visited were still stunning and set against gorse (or Ulex Europaeus) and beech trees, that both provide resources for the honey bees. Gorse is actually a weed introduced by settlers that seems to thrive in the harsh conditions of the South Island, but has become a vital part of the honey bees life as its bright yellow flowers flourish nearly all year round. Beech trees are native and offer honey dew, a sugary bi product of the Beech Scale Insect, that honey bees adore.
Leah and Ben lived in Australia for sometime where Leah worked as a nurse, and Ben a helicopter pilot. After returning to New Zealand they built the business from scratch over a 7 year period to where is is now and a full-time commercial operation. Both are really knowledgable and passionate about their beekeeping, and I learnt an absolute heap about what it takes to operate commercially, to understanding stages of the colonies process through the seasons. Due to the colonies struggling with the crazy weather patterns in the region, Ben and the crew were adding litres of sugar syrup to purpose made ‘feeding trays’ within the hives to provide food and a boost to increase the numbers in the struggling colonies. A first in many years by all accounts. See the high tank on the back of the truck with what looks like a fuel pump? That’s the sugar syrup dispenser. This procedure is all about timing, as levels of syrup, (known as C4) if found in the final product is an issue as it’s not classed as natural NZ honey. Another discussion surrounded relatively new legislation governing what constitutes Manuka honey now, and how it has impacted the industry immensely. It’s not the first time that I’ve heard about it either whereby during the introduction of the legislation, honey stockpiled for 2 years unable to be sold, while they worked through the new guidelines. Sadly, industry wide this caused the cost per kilo of honey to drop from $14 to sometimes as little as $2. Add covid supply chain issues, and the largest export market, China dictating the pricing too, it’s a tough business now to make a living. I also asked if Ben had noticed any decline in the bee colonies over the years, and the answer was that global warming and the erratic weather has been the biggest contributor to their hive decline, and the relentless need to re-build colonies.
Southern Alps Honey’s hives are located quite far from the Canterbury Plains too, that see a lot of pesticide spraying, so their honey is naturally low in pesticides too. I’ve been fortunate to taste a lot of raw bee honey comb since I started this project (my favourite) and Southern Alps Honey has been the richest, darkest, and most intense flavoured to date! So good.
Due to restrictions getting to the more scenic locations and the light just being horrid, I’ll have to revisit Southern Alps Honey again over the Summer to capture the hives and operations against the mountains. That’s all good though, as this project has only really started after 4 months, and like beekeeping itself, the photographic process can’t be rushed or forced. Mother Nature dictates both outcomes. One pleasing outcome of working on more hives now – is that the images are showcasing just how many bees are present at these sites, and it’s still early in the season! I can only imagine the experience of standing in the middle of hives stacked 7 high multiples by 10- 20! I’m now wearing a suit by the way after being stung on the face, and it’s a much much better experience all round. A necessity really. There is better safety of course, but it also allows me to navigate and capture more angles, and the process. It’s utterly mesmerising being amongst so many bees!
Whats coming up next? I’ve been working though a list of images I feel will work well and compliment the series. This list mostly includes the flora that the honey bees love, and others are more still life and the equipment. I was stoked to finally capture the stunning yellow flowers of the Gorse, as well as the Beech trees that are so vital, to Southern Alps Honey’s hives, and South Island bee keepers in general. It’s great to tick off these types of images, as they do really compliment the portraiture and in situ hives. I’m trying my best to wind this project down for hand in by the 22nd November, but I’ve got some interesting leads at the last minute that I feel will add to the series. I’ve got some urban hives lined up in the city, and I’m still chasing a location with a mountain view too! I’ve also been passionately looking for a Maori beekeeper portrait, and I’m very excited to finally have one lined up, after looking since the project started 4 months ago. I’m also starting to write the ‘essay’ to accompany the imagery in the book, and have plans to head off in my camper-van and chill in the back to write it. I feel this is the only way it will get done with too many distractions at home. Wish me luck! One other worry is that I’m running out of Kodak Portra coloured film, and with the prices increasing by 20% (that’s 50% in the past 2 years) It’s a bit of a rush to get a good stash purchased and put in the fridge, to safe guard shooting not just in the coming months, but also next year. Thankfully black and white Ilford HP5 is still affordable. Worst case, that will be the film of choice, because I’m not going to abandon this process! Finally, this set I feel represents the working hive best to date, as I’m getting to know the ‘work place’ and commercial routine of beekeepers better. All of which would not be possible without the generosity of the people I’m spending time with. Thank you for your time and passing on your knowledge to me.