May 21, 2023
Palmerston North’s Bev Williams shares her love of backyard beekeeping
Share this article Bev Williams with a beehive frame in her Palmerston North
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Bev Williams with a beehive frame in her Palmerston North honey processing shed. Photo / Sonya Holm
Backyard beekeeper Bev Williams deals with moody queens, deadbeat drones and robber bees to maintain a steady flow of her favourite spread: homemade honey.
Until March, three honey hives sat in Williams’ suburban Palmerston North backyard when the middle hive was hijacked and robbed by neighbouring bees.
"They just go in and clean all the honey out. Kill the brood off. Kill the queen," Williams says.
A brood in bee-talk is the pupae, the eggs.
Williams has had backyard bees for 11 years, taking up the hobby in her early 70s after her husband – who was allergic to bees – died.
Williams processes honey in a small purpose-built shed, filled with food-safe plastic buckets, wooden frames and an extractor, all imbued with the delicious, musky, sweet scent of beeswax.
Williams holds up a new bright pink protective suit.
"Isn't it gorgeous?" she says, as she explains the honey process.
"You take the frames out of the hive that are full of honey. Cut the first layer of wax off … and then you put it into the extractor and spin.
"The honey comes through here [a small tap] into the bucket and then straight into jars. That's all the processing that I do."
Despite the stereotype of a man in a white protective suit, Williams says "beekeeping has always been a woman's occupation. Through history, farmers had the animals and the women had bees."
Indeed, Apiculture NZ says the first person thought to have brought honey bees to New Zealand was Mary Bumby in 1839.
Gardening is a lifelong habit, and Williams’ bees support her vegetable garden and fruit trees.
"I used to spend a lot of time with my grandmother. She was Māori and we spent a lot of time in the gardens," says Williams, who is connected to Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga in Taranaki.
Williams’ bees produce floral honey, "because of all the gardens around here".
"If I’m taking honey when the fennel is out down at the riverbank it tastes slightly like liquorice ... And then when the pōhutukawa are out too, it's got a different flavour."
A fig tree once stood in the backyard. "I used to do figs and honey it was beautiful, with red wine of course."
To bee or not to bee is a serious question, as wasps can get into hives and kill bees, plus there are diseases to protect against.
Last year Williams had to handle a swarm in her apple tree.
"You get two queens in a hive and one queen will just take a group of bees and leave," Williams says, who shook the bees into a box and started a new hive.
A queen sits at the top of the bee social structure. She is chosen by the others and fed royal jelly.
Female nurse bees look after the young, and worker bees clean and find food, flying up to 2-3km each day.
Drone bees – the only males – are there for mating purposes only.
"But it's not like they’re busy because the queen mates once, then spends her life laying eggs."
And when food supplies run low, the drones get kicked out.
"A few weeks ago they were dragging all the males out of the hive and going ‘bugger off.’"
Nothing goes to waste, however, as birds eat the honey-filled treats.
Williams has a "don't worry bee happy" ornament, a bee doormat and says "I’m going to get someone to come and paint bees on my fence".
On the best way to eat honey, Williams has hers on Helga's toast.
"I have honey every morning. You know, I haven't really had a serious cold for years."
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