Interviews With Beekeepers

Biased

Walrus and Randy Oliver
Walrus and Randy Oliver

I like to think of myself as objective and open-minded, but of course, I’m delusional. Unintentionally so. The thing about being biased is that we don’t see it in ourselves. We clearly see it in others, especially when they hold contrary views to our own. There is something in the human (and walrus) psyche that constructs patterns of cause and effect which make perfect sense (to us). Another person’s mind, one with different education or culture or upbringing, may see the exact same things in a totally different way. I believe that a noble goal is to try to accept this inevitability and to realise that there is no single “truth” and to accept that others see the world differently.

Baggage

With “confirmation bias” we tend to obtain information from sources that confirm our views (echo chambers). Lefty liberals read the Guardian whereas right-wing conservatives read the Telegraph. Selecting those two newspapers shows my “selection bias” because they are UK papers which many people in the rest of the world have never heard of. They are also more “high brow” than some; I could have chosen the Mirror and the Daily Mail, but I’m university educated and bring that baggage with me. 

I try hard to see things from an alternative point of view, then realise that I was right all along! Then I make a mistake and hopefully learn from it, and change my beliefs to reflect this new knowledge. It wasn’t new; it was new to my personal experience. The wisest people have made the most mistakes. Well, the true sages learn from the mistakes of others, but that’s more of an aspiration than the reality for me.

Book Reviews

The reason for such philosophical reflection is that I have been looking at various reviews of my book, Interviews with Beekeepers. Putting any sort of content out into the world can be a bruising experience. So far, people have been very polite. The point of my book is to share the experience of great people from the beekeeping world, using their own words. If you disagree with what they say, you can take it up with them; they are not my words or experiences. This is, of course, nonsense. I’m the one who selected the interviewees, and they are my questions. I’m sure some of my bias, however unintentional, seeps through.

Steve with his Book
Steve with his Book

Business Bias

Much of my life has been involved in either growing small businesses or managing costs in big ones. I studied Chemistry with Economics at University, then professional accountancy qualifications, then the Six Sigma quality program at General Electric. Then I helped to build a successful company from scratch using many of the principles in “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. I have a business bias – it’s just the way I look at things. Lately, I have admired the teachings of Ray Dalio, who is a man who knows an economic cycle when he sees one. 

It should be no surprise that my focus for a bee book was commercial bee farmers. These are the beekeepers that I admire because they have earned their livelihoods from bees for many many years. They have been tested by harsh economic conditions, the ever-changing weather and the arrival of new diseases and parasites. My logic is that to survive and prosper for decades at the beekeeping game, you have to have picked up invaluable knowledge. I wanted to learn from these people and share what they said with the beekeeping world.

Here are my interviewees and my reasons for including them in my book:

Michael Palmer, Vermont (USA)

Came to my attention via National Honey Show videos on YouTube. There is much rubbish out there, but Mike‘s talks on sustainable beekeeping and raising queens stood out with their excellence and good sense. I have spent time with him in Vermont and Ireland (I was his driver for a few days). I have massive respect for his enormous depth of knowledge and experience. 

David Kemp, UK

Michael Palmer suggested that I contact David because he had been fascinated by his stories when they had met. David worked as the assistant to Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey in the 1960s and 70s, so it was exciting to get first-hand knowledge of that bygone age. He also provided some beautiful photographs from his time at Buckfast.

Buckfast Abbey Home Apiary 1960s
Buckfast Abbey Home Apiary 1960s
Peter Little, UK

Mike spoke fondly of meeting Peter Little of Exmoor Bees and Beehives, and I knew about him from the UK beekeeping forum. He runs the mating station on Dartmoor formerly used by Brother Adam, and he specialises in breeding Buckfast bees. Peter uses instrumental insemination as well as his isolated mating stations and produces very high-quality queens in the UK. He also has a sawmill to cut Western Red Cedar from which his eldest son makes beehives for sale.

Richard Noel, Brittany (France)

Both Mike Palmer and Peter Little mentioned that they had been visited by the “up and coming” Richard Noel. Richard was learning from the same people that I was, and was putting it to good effect in his commercial beekeeping operation. He also has first-hand experience of dealing with Asian hornets, which have just begun to appear in the UK.

Randy Oliver, California (USA)

Who hasn’t heard of Randy Oliver? I was delighted to spend a day with him at his place near Grass Valley, observing for myself his trials into bee drifting and protein supplements. He has passed the commercial bee farming over to his sons so that he can focus on his field trials and speaking at events. Beekeepers love Randy because he is a scientist who can write and talk like an average person, giving us what we need to know without the fluff.

Ray Olivarez, California (USA)

It was Randy who suggested that I get in touch with Ray, and I’m so glad I did. Olivarez Honey Bees is a giant beekeeping company with over 16,000 hives. They produce a vast number of queens for sale and also run a popular “hobby day” event each spring at their headquarters in Orland. I was excited to see that despite their scale, they are very much still a family business.

A few of Olivarez Honey Bees Mating Nucs
Peter Bray, Canterbury (NZ)

From a very well known and long-established beekeeping family in New Zealand, Peter owns Airborne Honey. He specialises in packing, selling and distributing honey rather than keeping bees. Airborne has pioneered several unique systems and processes that make them stand out from the crowd. It was great to get Peter’s views on the world honey market, manuka, pollen diversity, honey analysis and much more.

Peter Bray Jan 2018
Peter Bray Jan 2018
Murray McGregor, UK

I interviewed Murray and his assistant Jolanta who looks after queen rearing. Denrosa Apiaries are the biggest UK operation with 3,500 hives at the time of my visit. Murray has a wealth of experience, having worked with bees for most of his life. He took over from his father, who was his mentor from a young age. The main focus of the year is the heather honey crop in late summer.

One of a Kind

There are not many people who are prepared to go through what I did to produce this book, so in many ways, it is a one-off. The travel costs alone were astronomical, but I’m proud of the final result. Hopefully, it will give readers a useful snapshot into commercial bee farming today, with a glance back to our history and some forecasts for the future too.

There are many good books for beginners, hobby beekeepers and some of the alternative ways to go, such as natural beekeeping. I don’t feel bad for omitting them from my book as they are well catered for elsewhere. The thing about this wonderful craft of beekeeping is that you never stop learning, and there is always so much more to do.

3 replies »

  1. It was a fascinating read into the lives of commercial beekeepers, your selection was excellent I have suggested to lots of beekeepers that this is well worth a read. Its different from the usual books on beekeeping and i can see where some might not be happy or agree with some if the comments as Apis millifera miliferra did not excite the people you interviewed. Great read well done.

    • Thanks! I know people do well with Amm in parts of Ireland and Wales, so it’s horses for courses. They seem to prosper in the wind and rain!

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