A sweet job worth the efforts
PROFESSIONAL apiarist Ray Clarke believes the biggest issue facing Queensland beekeepers is honey prices.
The Warwick local said like many people involved in primary production there was a worrying discrepancy, between what beekeepers needed to break even and what they were getting at wholesale level.
"We really need a minimum of $3.50 a kilogram to make it worthwhile," he said.
"But the reality is what we are getting at the moment it more likely to be between $3.05 and $3.20 a kg."
He said the market was the legacy of a high Australian dollar combined with the arrival of imported honey on supermarket shelves.
"Though like most primary producers we are price takers and there are times when that's hard to take," Mr Clarke said.
"Especially when you consider bees play a part through either honey or pollination in producing almost one in every three mouthfuls of what Australians eat."
Despite his obvious frustrations there is little chance this third generation apiarist will give up self employment as a beekeeper in favour of more regular work hours.
"I have been doing this for 20 years, but my grandfather, Clarence Clarke, started beekeeping on Bribie Island back in the 1920s," he said.
"He used to move the hives around the passage between Bribie Island and Caloundra on boats.
"Then in 1948 he shifted to Warwick and started beekeeping here, then my uncle took over and then in 1991 my dad and I got some more hives and in 1999 I became a fulltime beekeeper.
"I've had other jobs in the mining industry, then I worked as a wardsman at the hospital, but this is a really labour intensive job, but I love it."
For the past two decades he and his wife Anne have been in the business together, but in recent years they have expanded operations and taken on their son-in-law Alex Hall.
These days Mr Clarke is chairman of the Warwick Branch of the Queensland Beekeepers Association, which represents close to 30 professional as well as amateur apiarists.
"There are more beekeepers around than most people
probably realise," he explained.
"In the Warwick region alone we probably have about seven or eight long-time commercial beekeepers."
For the Clarke's their honey producing arm accounts for more than 80% of their operation, with pollination making up the remaining 20%.
"We have been involved in supplying bees for pollination for 20 years and that's sort of made of half apple pollination on the Granite Belt and then seed canola pollination in the Tamworth and Gunnedah area."
In terms of production the Clarkes' have 1300 hives with anywhere from an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 bees per hive.
In contrast to when his grandfather first started when hives were scattered across the Southern Downs, today the Clarkes' sites stretch from Warwick west to Quilpie in the Channel Country, north to Childers and Eidsvold and south into the New England.
"We don't have as much of a spread with our hives as bigger producers," Mr Clarke explained.
"But having different sites across a wide area definitely spreads the risk.
"We do about 40,000km a year but the spread helps us cope with things like drought and the fact different trees and areas flower at different times.
"Short term weather stuffs you around in terms of bee activity, but longer term it usually makes for a better season."
However he explained despite years of experience and "forever learning" about beekeeping predicting annual production remained a challenge.
"We might produce three to four hundred drums of honey - at 300kg each - one year and then it can happen that we produce just 50 drums, which fortunately doesn't happen often, it all depends on the season," Mr Clarke said.
Pollination demand also varies although he said you could usually factor on having to supply "one to two hives an acre" for apples and "five to seven hives an acre" for seed canola.
"The bees are in with the apples for about three to four weeks and in with the canola for anywhere from a month to six weeks depending on conditions," he said.
And unlike bee's longevity, which ranges from a 25 day life cycle to 63 days in the west, the Clarke family are in the honey business for the long haul.
"I love honey I think it's one of the healthiest foods there is and I love the job so I can't seem myself giving it away anytime."