Season shaping up bee-utifully

In a paddock at Mannanarie, just north of Jamestown, there are millions of workers busily going about their daily duties in a massive ‘fly in, fly out’ operation that appears to ‘bee’ running like clockwork.

However, it is not man power, but bee power that is keeping things firing as part of the Wehrmann family’s apiary business, with their bees busily making honey and pollinating the nearby canola crops.

With a beautiful backdrop of rolling green hills, yellow canola and wind turbines, James Wehrmann and sons Josh, 19, and Mitch, 16, are just as busy, loading honey supers on the truck ready to take into their Jamestown factory to extract the honey.

Just as local farmers are relishing the recent rain, it has also been welcomed with a sigh of relief by these Mid North beekeepers.

“The last rain has made things a lot more positive, along with the 50 millimetres of rain that fell in August, especially after the autumn we had which was very dry,” James said.

“At that stage I had most of my bees over on the West Coast so we didn’t get much of a start, and the weather also turned cold early in May, also affecting things on the West Coast where normally we’d take honey into June but weren’t able to this season because of the cold weather.

“Poor spring conditions over the last few years have meant the trees haven’t grown as much and there’s not a lot of bud in our area so we’re really relying on rain and crops like vetch and canola, so this rain has been very good.”

The welcome rain comes as honey prices are also good, a surprisingly positive spin-off from the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve seen honey sales increase this year with more people bulk buying,” James said.

“There’s now a shortage of honey. “We supply to Capilano and they’re trying to get as much honey in as they can because their stocks are low.

“As a result, the price is probably the highest I’ve seen it and I’m third generation apiarist with our business supplying honey since the 1950s.

“While it’s great to have good prices, it’s also a fine line – if the honey price goes up too much the price goes up in the supermarket and people stop buying it. I saw this happen in 2004 where the price increased, people stopped buying and then it dropped back down lower than it was before.

“It can really catch you in the long run so hopefully we can maintain prices at a steady rate.”

James runs the business with wife Wanda, his sons Josh and Mitch and daughter Chloe.

The business – started by James’s late grandfather Ivan and then his late father Robert – now operates 1300 hives, each housing 40,000-50,000 bees.

It is a year-round operation, moving the hives with the seasons.

“At this time of the year our hives are mostly based around Jamestown and the Mid North, and this is about the only time of the year that happens,” James said.

“That comes off the back of the Riverland almond pollination season from the end of July til the end of August/start of September which provides a really valuable cash flow for us coming out of winter, especially after a dry autumn because there’s normally very little production in the winter time when it’s cold.

“We’ll be here in the Mid North hopefully into December when we might get pockets of Mallee and lucerne and hopefully we get some summer rains to kick that along.

“Then at the end of January we head back to the West Coast, and some years to Yorke Peninsula as well.”

As the fourth generation Wehrmanns now involved in the business, Josh and Mitch have grown up in the industry.

Unlike the Wehrmanns who have paved the way before them, these young lads are part of a new generation of beekeepers who even have the option of a tertiary education in the field.

Josh was the youngest to complete a Certificate III in beekeeping, travelling interstate to attend New South Wales’ Tocal College. And now Mitch is ready to follow suit in conjunction with a school-based apprenticeship in the family business.

James said unfortunately South Australia did not currently provide this type of education, and there “seemed to be very little in the way of support for junior and emerging beekeepers”.

However, both Josh and Mitch say they have always loved being involved in beekeeping, but do have some concerns about the future of the industry, particularly with not many other young apiarists coming through.

“I feel like the future of beekeeping isn’t going to be strong due to the lack of junior beekeepers,” Mitch said.

“I also feel bush fires are going to have a big impact for beekeepers in maintaining their bees and keeping their businesses strong.”

However, one thing is for sure and that is both Josh and Mitch have beekeeping in their blood and could not imagine life without it.

“Beekeeping has always been my dream job and I’ve always loved working on the bees. I’m just fascinated by them and love watching them come and go from their hives,” Josh said.

“Working with my dad and brother makes it fun and enjoyable. It’s also a tough, hard-working job but I love it and wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.”