A Day with a Commercial Beekeeper in New Zealand

From Bee Craft: July 2009

David Dennington

A chance to find out about beekeeping and sheep shearing


Commercial beekeeping involves a lot of physical labour, regardless of the country


The pick up is at 7.00 am. There is light rain and it is a damp misty morning. The temperature is about 10 °C We reach the first set of 25 hives at about 7.30 am. He uses old pallets as stands, each pallet holding four hives. These are large Langstroth hives, each with a solid floor. Large-size boxes are used for both brood and honey. Most have a plastic queen excluder and a plastic box feeder, with a soft synthetic blanket with no ventilation hole below a zinc roof. The zinc roof is used as a hive record, kept up to date with a large, thick, marker pen.

About one-third of the frames are solid black plastic. These come ready waxed when new and, when sterilised and cleaned, are re-waxed using a paint roller. Only new black frames are being added today. His intention is to go over totally to using plastic frames.

The first part of the day we will work on the mainland. Later we are to visit an Island, Ponui, about five miles offshore to check hives there. He mentions that they are sheep shearing today and that we are to be involved.


He says that I will be seeing ‘rough’ beekeeping but what he really means is quick beekeeping. No smoke is used. Only one hive really went for us, otherwise they were surprisingly quiet. During five hours of beekeeping, we open about 100 hives.

The first of today’s jobs is to identify hives which will go to Kiwi fruit orchards overnight. They must have at least five frames of brood and 11 frames with bees. Only strong stocks are sent to the orchards. It is very hard on the bees as kiwi fruit vines have no nectar but do provide pollen. The bees will stay in the orchards for up to three weeks and provide a significant part of the beekeeper’s income.


An early start, whatever the weather

The second job is making splits. When he wants to make a new stock, he shakes all the bees on the frames in an upper box into the lower box. He keeps some brood frames for the upper box and puts in a plastic queen excluder. After a few hours or a day, or on his next visit, he puts a solid floor in place of the queen excluder, turns the upper box to have an entrance on the opposite side from the main entrance and puts in either a purchased queen in a cage or a self-grown queen cell. We are checking today to see if the queens have been accepted and are laying eggs.


At 10.00 am, we arrive at a little quay. Previously, the beekeeper has phoned the farmer on the island and he arrives with an open boat to take us across. To ‘pay’ for the passage and the use of the farmer’s tractor, we have to work in the wool shed while they shear several hundred sheep.

The whole family work, including grandma and children. I am put to work on wool packing. I work in my socks and fill giant bags with fresh-cut wool, stamping it down with my feet and using a hydraulic ramming machine. After three hours of fun and work, I am soaked with lanolin and guess what I smell like! Lunch in the farm kitchen with the whole family and the shearing gang is a meal that I will always remember.


1. Boarding the boat for Ponui
2. Checking the brood nest
3. The black frames are made in one piece with moulded black foundation. They are sterilised and re-waxed when necessary

After lunch it is out to the tractor and back to the bees. Here we are checking new queens and putting on ‘wet boxes’. These have been delivered to the island on a barge from the contract extractor. They were stored wet after honey extraction, wet frames being less liable to infestation by wax moth. They have been wrapped in cling film to keep the bees out of the boxes while they are on the trailer.

The beekeeper says it is early for honey boxes to go on but this is the best opportunity that he has to get the job done. The crop on the island will be a mixture of clover and bush trees, including some Manuka and pohutukawa.


His working pattern is: lid off, check the feeder, quick look in top box, split the hive half way, look in the top box from underneath, check any visible pupae for varroa, look in bottom box from above. If necessary, he will put aside the top box then lift a few frames to check the brood. He is treating varroa with Apistan strips, one strip per hive for eight weeks. This is sufficient at present but he is experimenting with just a few mesh floors.

I ask about swarm control. His answer is that it is not a problem. He thinks that a queen cell found halfway up a frame is a natural supersedure so he does not touch it. He takes out any queen cells at the bottom of the top box. He does not expect to collect swarms.

I explain about the use of bait hives in Iran and he lets me set some up a little way from the end of his hive rows. We must wait and see if my contribution to the day has any value to him.


A commercial beekeeper does not have a lot of time to go through colonies. Boxes are separated to take a quick look for queen cells

In the late afternoon, the wind has come up and we and the shearers are back in the open boat getting very wet. Halfway back the engine stops. There are no life jackets and no float aids that I can see. I pray and work out how I am going to get my Wellies off if I have to. The engine eventually restarts and we all get back to the quay safely. Later I find out that there were some life jackets in a locker.

What a great day. What great people. What a backache! It is a day I will always remember. The beekeeper still has to load up his hives and deliver them to the orchard in the middle of the night. 

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