I’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.
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 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: