Interview with Lorraine Muldoon
This article appeared in New Zealand Beekeeper magazine recently, or it’s about to. It’s over two and a half years since my trip to the other side of our beautiful planet; I hope I get to visit again someday.
When I was planning my book, one thing was for sure: I wanted to visit New Zealand. I was not disappointed; stunningly beautiful countryside, warm and friendly people and a thriving beekeeping culture.
Lorraine Muldoon kindly gave up some of her time to chat to me. She specialises in beechwood honeydew honey from the foothills of Mt. Oxford, although she also produces some manuka blend and some clover honey. It’s all delicious.
As I arrived, Lorraine was extracting in the warm, fragrant, sticky environment that will be familiar to most beekeepers. Her honey house smelled great, but the slippy floor was lethal. She finished uncapping some frames, set the extractor going, and invited me into her home for a cup of tea. Here are some extracts from the interview, which sadly never made it into the book:
Steve: Can you remember any incredible years that you have had?
Lorraine: The best year we did over two hundred 44 gallon drums.
Steve: That’s a lot.
Lorraine: I think we had over 700 hives then, and it was an exceptional year for everything, because of the weather. We had to employ a couple of people to extract so that we could keep recycling the boxes back to the bees.
Steve: But you were happy to do that!
Lorraine: Yes! Well, that’s what you’ve got to do. You only get one go at it, so you’ve got to work like anything when it’s there.
Steve: Any idea what year that was?
Lorraine: It was in the mid 1980’s. The clover and everything yielded.
Steve: That was just the right amount of sun and rain, not too dry?
Lorraine: Yep. It’s normally over two seasons, not one.
Steve: What about disasters, have you had any?
Lorraine: We haven’t had disasters, but we had some lean years, and they go in a two-year run too. That’s just because it was too wet and cold for the honeydew.
I don’t take all my honey off the bees. I leave some on the hives so that they can get right through the Winter with their stores.
Steve: What hive configuration would that be?
Lorraine: Two brood boxes and a three-quarter box on top. A lot of people shut them right down, but I don’t, because you can’t get around them all in the Spring at the same time. You have to leave them a bit of room so that if the Spring is a good one, they have space to use until you get to them.
Steve: Did you wake up one day and say, “Right, I’m going to be a beekeeper”?
Lorraine: We used to pick potatoes, then we used to grade potatoes, then we went on to shearing sheep and being fleece pickers; that’s what the three of us did. Then their backs were playing up with bending over sheep all day, and they thought here had to be something easier.
Steve: Who would this be?
Lorraine: My husband and his friend, who was in the bees with us.
Lorraine: Then we decided to go into bees and also deer, in the late 1970’s. We had chillers here, and we bought venison off the hunters, then the wild catchers started, so we bought live deer off them and started to set up the deer farm. It’s just grown from there. When the bees have a bad year, the deer usually have a good one.
Steve: That’s quite handy
Steve: What about any heroes or mentors? Did you follow or read about someone or get taught by anyone?
Lorraine: We bought some nucleus bee hives off a couple of older beekeepers down the road. We started that way and just read books and learned by our mistakes.
Steve: How many nucs did you start with?
Lorraine: I think we bought thirty the first season. We were still shearing at the time.
Steve: Did you know that you would be OK with bees?
Lorraine: Well, we had two older friends, and they were commercial beekeepers, so we knew what we were getting into.
Steve: Do have any advice for any young hopefuls who want to start commercial beekeeping?
Lorraine: The main thing is to go and work for a beekeeper for a year so that you know from start to finish what it entails. Then when you get your own bees, you have to have the time to do what you need to do when it needs to be done, not left until next week. It’s got to be done when it has to be done. You need that flexibility.
Steve: How many hours per week are you at it?
Lorraine: At the moment we try to do four hours per day because it’s been so hot. You can’t work long in the heat. You go out in the morning and by 1 pm that’s it for the day.
Steve: It’s been about 30 degrees Celsius.
Lorraine: It has, this last month’s been terrible.
Steve: Does that affect the bees?
Lorraine: A lot of the bees have to stay home and fan, to keep the hives cool, and they are all hanging out. The hives have all got beards of bees on them at the moment because it’s too hot.
Steve: What about queens?
Lorraine: I usually make my own. I make nucs up each Spring, and they make their own queens. I pull some good frames out of a hive and put it into a nuc which gets moved away to another site, and they make their own queens. We usually get about a 90% success rate. A lot of our bees supersede.
We never breed off a swarm. If we get a swarm of bees, any that we collect, we take them to sites well away from the rest down by the river. We leave them for a year to make sure they haven’t got disease. It’s quite important, that.
Threats to the business
Steve: Are there any threats to your business that you worry about?
Lorraine: We have had a lot of new beekeepers come into the area. Some are good, and they have survived, but others haven’t. They are a worry, especially with disease.
Lorraine: Foul-brood is the worst.
Steve: Nothing much you can do about it, I guess.
Lorraine: Education. The beekeepers around here don’t want to sit together and learn from each other; they don’t want people to know what they are up to
Lorraine: It’s sad. Hardly any of them go to the meetings. Older beekeepers are trying to teach the new beekeepers, but the new beekeepers just go and do their own thing. We’ve got so many more beekeepers now, and they dump their bees next to ours, just over the fence. The old gentleman’s arrangement thirty years ago was that if a guy had an area, you stayed out of it. You go and get your own place, or you join up with him.
Steve: That’s gone now?
Lorraine: Yes, especially with Manuka. Everyone’s chasing Manuka.
Pollen is crucial
Steve: Have you seen any changes over the years, like a good site going bad or things like that?
Lorraine: The reason a good site goes bad is because there are too many bees in the area for the amount of pollen. Pollen is crucial; if you haven’t got good pollen in the Spring, your hive won’t be any good. A lot of hives when you look inside don’t have much pollen in them.
Steve: Have you designed or invented something or adapted something in your business?
Loraine: I designed a stand with a container on top so that when you undid your hive straps you didn’t have to chuck them on the ground. We put rocks on all of our hives, even though they are strapped. If a hive falls over and it’s not strapped it breaks apart, and all the bees rob the honey out of it. The straps pay for themselves. You’ve got to have your hives level because when they get high if one falls over it cascades against all the row, so you’ve got more than one over [laughs]
What’s it all about?
Steve: What do you do when you are not working?
Lorraine: Go on a cruise
Steve: You do that?
Lorraine: Yeah, I’ve done three cruises. I go with a couple of girlfriends, every few years.
Steve: My final question is about your philosophy of beekeeping – what’s it all about?
Lorraine: It’s a great lifestyle. It’s outdoors, and I like things outdoors, I’d never ever work inside. I enjoy it, and bees are fascinating things; there’s always lots to learn. You never know it all.
Steve: You wouldn’t change it?
Lorraine: No, I wouldn’t change it.
Lorraine later cooked me a meal fit for a king; bacon, eggs and toast topped with creamy clover honey. She’s an impressive woman who works alone much of the time now that her husband and his friend have passed away. I’m grateful to have met her.