David Attenborough recently posted a social media message encouraging us all to look after bees. ‘If bees were to disappear from the face of the earth, humans would have just four years left to live,’ he wrote. Local apiculturists Deb and Greg McLaughlin of Bulwarra Bees are busy doing their bit, producing award winning honey in the process.
We were inspired by watching the UK TV series River Cottage with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Being self sufficient really appealed to us.
Did you grow up on the land?
No, we moved here from Newtown in 2011. The hives came shortly after, although we were told by a local permaculture consultant that bees wouldn’t work in the Highlands as it was too cold. Nevertheless, we took a punt and started with three hives situated amongst the orchard.
How did you know your first batch of honey was any good, Deb?
I remember Greg trying the honey and saying, ‘It’s really good!’ and me thinking, honey is honey, it all tastes the same. If you’ve been buying your honey from supermarkets all your life, it does, because they want consistency; amber in colour, mild flavoured. So I dipped my finger straight into our honeycomb and it was a serious ‘Wow!’ moment.
And then you won first prize at the Moss Vale Show?
In 2015 Greg was keen to enter our honey into the show. We won first prize and the $2 prize money. A few months later Greg entered our honey into the Sydney Royal National Honey Show, and we were so excited to win second prize, it took a few days to realise we’d actually received a first prize for our dark honey in another category for small producers.
So how does it taste?
The Bowral Dark has more intensity than our Amber and Light varieties, but it works and is balanced out by other delicious qualities that resemble Christmas cake and maybe rum and raisins.
Why the name Bulwarra Bees, Greg?
It’s named after the street where Deb grew up in Sydney. Bulwarra is an Aboriginal word meaning ‘view from lofty height’. Our property is on the south side of Mt Gibraltar, where we have ‘lofty’ views to Moss Vale.
Is there a family history of farming or apiculture?
No, all our apiarist skills were developed through joining the local bee keeping club (Southern Highlands Apiarists Association) and you can’t beat YouTube sometimes.
How many beekeepers in the Southern Highlands?
Highlanders love bees! Since joining the Southern Highlands Apiarists Association in 2013, memberships have increased exponentially. We now have more than 60 active members.
Tell us about bees.
They are fascinating, intelligent creatures. They may appear domesticated, but they are independent and tenacious beings with a clear set of roles for each. Bees do what they do with precision. If the moisture content of honey is too high it will eventually spoil and start to ferment. Bees instinctively know exactly the right proportions, so the honey will never spoil. How wild is that?
How big is your colony?
We have 40 hives, and a hive is at its peak in summer with numbers in excess of 50,000 bees.
What qualities do you need to be a successful beekeeper?
Obviously you don’t want to be nervous around the bees; they’re a bit like horses in that they sense your fear. Bees are unrelenting and they don’t give up their pursuit. Multiple stings are commonplace, so a high pain threshold and a calm demeanour help.
Biggest challenges facing bees?
Airborne contaminants. We worry that mining and land clearance will potentially bring an end to the honey industry here. Our region is producing some of best honey in the country, and we all need our bees to support agriculture. They are the world’s pollinators.
Where can we buy Bulwarra Bees honey locally?
Bowral Markets on the second Saturday of each month, and Mrs Old Bucks Pantry in Berrima. We also do a dessert mead; Damsel which you can try at Bendooley Estate, and on tap at Southern Highlands Brewing & Taphouse, Moss Vale. We also make a Cough Serum and recently released our 2018 Creamed Honey.
What can we personally do to help bees thrive?
Look for alternatives to the herbicide glyphosate. Try to source a nonsystemic herbicide based on pine oil, vinegar and clove oil. These are safe to bees.
Are bees busy Deb?
Spring is a time of rapid increase for bees, and heightened vigilance for beekeepers. We get several calls a week to capture swarms as people are increasingly aware spraying them isn’t an option, an obvious win for the bees.
What finally what do they love in our gardens?
Purple flowering varieties are bee porn. They adore all varieties of lavender, salvia, stachys (lamb’s ear), catmint, thyme and rosemary.