Honey Times in Oz

scarecrowI’ve not yet travelled to Australia –  Oz, as some here in Canada call it. We who have never seen Oz can only picture the place with the same sense of awe that the scarecrow had for the Emerald City.  I’ve been lucky enough to see a few fascinating places, but Australia remains on my bucket list. It’s on my list partly for the kangaroos, but mostly for the honey flows.

As a child growing up among bees and beekeepers in North America, the idea of year-long honey flows under eternally blue skies held a fascination. The closest I could get to living in a honey-bee-Shangri-La has been here in western Canada. I like it here, but I’d still enjoy indulging in raw eucalyptus honey, freshly scraped from a drippy burr comb pulled out of a burgeoning 8-storey hive while a koala looks on.

Australia conjures many images. For some people, the crocodile hunter, Steve Irwin, comes to mind as the quintessential Australian. But my own legendary Australian is someone few have ever heard of – Rob Smith.

Back in the fifties, Mr Smith kept bees in Australia’s western forests. One year,  he produced an average of 762 pounds of honey from each of his 460 hives.  That’s right, a 762-pound (345-kilo) average. Many of his hives made a thousand pounds of honey.  His bees were all in one big apiary, in a remote forest 300 kilometres south of Perth.

karri blossom

The unassuming flower of the Karri tree . (Credit)

Smith set up a small camp, complete with an extractor. He lived among his bees in the apiary. He extracted almost every day and put the emptied boxes back on his hives. The empties were refilled by the bees and emptied by Smith over and over again. This went on for 7 months. Finally, after months without rain, the blossoms on the karri trees dried out and stopped secreting nectar. The bees quit making honey. Rob Smith and his hives moved away.

Since then, others have claimed impressive honey crops, but I don’t think anyone ever topped Rob Smith’s production.  It may be hard to believe that single hives could make 762 pounds of honey, but it has happened here in western Canada.   Canada has a much shorter season, but for several consecutive years my scale hive produced over 400 pounds annually. My scale for hive - smallerscale hive’s best day was 33 pounds. The best week was 143 pounds net gain of honey. A few of my individual hives yielded over 600 pounds (I kept track.) – that’s a barrel of honey per hive.  (And there are better beekeepers here than I. I’m thinking of some of the masters around Nipawin, Saskatchewan, who ran 2-queen colonies. There were also spectacular crops in Alberta’s far north Peace River area.)  One year, the average for my entire outfit was 360 pounds – but that’s still just half of Smith’s enormous crop!

Smith surely holds the world’s most astounding result for an apiary. I sent notes around Australia a few years ago to see if the legendary Rob Smith was more than a legend. From Bill Winner, a corporate Beekeeper Services Manager:

“We can confirm the average production of 346 kilograms (762 lbs) per hive from 460 hives. The beekeeper’s name was Bob Smith from Manjimup, Western Australia. The honey was Karri. The year was 1954.”
Mr. Winner adds: “This figure is confirmed by R. Manning Land Management Journal Vol 1 (5) P24-26, in a table provided as Fig 1. in “Honey production from the Karri with Redgum & Jarrah.” Stating that commercial beekeeping commenced in 1936 with reference to Smith’s crop in a box titled “World Record”.

Manjimup, Smith’s town, is in Western Australia state. About the same time that Smith was doing the improbable, other beekeepers were doing well on the other side of the continent, too. Beekeepers there often produced five-hundred-pound honey crops. This is not happening anymore, according to friends in the country. Commercial beekeepers these days may run a few thousand hives in locations where a few hundred once made those phenomenal crops. Commercialization, deforestation, and global warming have cut into those legendary crops.

Seventy years ago, the Australian National Film Board sent a crew to follow a couple of east coast beekeepers, two ex-servicemen working for a honey outfit in New South Wales. The film crew made an excellent 10-minute documentary that really gives a sense of what beekeeping was once like. But you will also see much that hasn’t changed at all – except perhaps the size of the honey crop.

Here is the 1947 video, Bee-keeping on the Move:

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Beekeeping, Commercial Beekeeping, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Honey Times in Oz

  1. BeeNuts says:

    Lovely film! I had to smile at the stripy PJs – mandatory wear at night in the bush. As for the bees – oh to have bees so calm you don’t need a veil.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Heh – we were digging the sandals on the one fella. My husband is Australian and especially loved it – we have a snow gum in our backyard getting ready to bloom near our new hive and can’t wait to see if the bees fall in love with it 🙂

    Oh and I’ve been to Australia 4X and never saw a kangaroo until I went to a nature preserve (zoo) and paid to see ’em on the 4th visit (I refused to leave til I saw marsupials). More cows than I’ve ever seen in my life, however… 🙂


  3. Emily Scott says:

    Enjoyed that old film, some great shorts on display 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Miksha says:

      I guess you would notice the shorts! I like old bee movies, mostly to see the old trucks and equipment, not the shorts. Surprising how little has actually changed with the actual hives and frames.


      • Anonymous says:

        Ron – I live in Perth, Western Australia and recently travelled down to the South West for a few days and stayed in a place called Pemberton – not far from Manjimup. This was somewhat of a reminiscent of my childhood trip as I spent some time in the area whilst my father tended his apiary back in the 1950’s. I am Rob Smith’s daughter. I have recently tried to find our if my fathers World Record for honey producing had been broken but am unable to find any concrete evidence one way or another. You may or may not know also, that my father received a Diploma from Apimondia for his extensive study of bees and his contribution to the industry and that of beekeepers all over the world. We were of course very proud of this hard working man who passed away in 1981 at the age of just 66years. The only anomaly in your piece is that he did not live in Manjimup but in Guildford, a suburb of Perth. His hives at the time of this wonderful production of honey were in Manjimup in the magnificent Karri Forrest. I did enjoy the video also. Thank you for your lovely piece regarding my father. A man well regarded by all who knew him.
        Jennifer Rosevear (nee Smith).


      • Ron Miksha says:

        Hello, Jennifer!
        Thanks for offering these details about your father, Rob Smith. I didn’t know that he had been recognized by Apimondia for his contributions. Nor was I aware that he had died at just age 66. My research was almost entirely based on my memory of reading a small piece in American Bee Journal many years ago – somehow the name Rob Smith stuck with me and recently I learned a little more about his amazing beekeeping. I am thankful that you have written your comments. I think that the ‘Golden Age’ of Australian beekeeping was the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a period which I hope will never be forgotten.

        I don’t think that your father’s incredible honey crop has ever been surpassed. I was irritated when a California beekeeper (Ormond Aebi) was described by Guinness as holding the world record in honey per hive back in the 1980s – his crop of merely 404 pounds was only half of what your father achieved. I suspect that neither Guinness nor Aebi knew about your father’s crop. I hope the record is properly set right – Rob Smith of Guildford, Australia, holds the world record (762 pounds of honey from each of his 460 hives in a single season) in honey production!


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