Nick Holmes isn’t fazed by the bees buzzing around his bare hands, legs and face. They’re not fazed by him either; busy doing their jobs as he peruses their headquarters.
To the untrained eye, the stack of boxes Holmes is attending to doesn’t seem too different to a regular hive – it looks like an unpainted version of those seen on rural paddocks. It is different, however, and as a result, so are the bees.
An arborist by day, 30-year-old Holmes makes hives with his own milled wood, using the design of French abbot Emile Warre.
In the early 1900s, Warre designed and trialled over 350 styles of hive, attempting to mimic the way feral colonies are constructed. Warre believed this design was the best for allowing bees to recreate their habitat in the most natural way, and consequently produce honeycomb.
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“You could mimic a tree in any way, but this is the simplest way to approach it,” Holmes says. “In Japan, they hollow out logs and use piano wire to cut the honey out.”
Holmes fells trees for his work as an arborist, and brings some of them back to his West Auckland workshop to use as the foundations of his beehives.
He has sold about 30 hives in the last 18 months through his business Natural Beekeeping New Zealand, and also offers natural beekeeping courses and swarm removal services.
Holmes is simply providing bees a habitat to do their own thing, he says – the hives are checked only twice a year for disease, and the bees are left to go about their business before they move on. At that point the honey is collected – each hive yields around 14kg a year.
“They’ll find a hollow in a tree in a forest, and they’ll move in through a small hole and start at the top of that cavity, drawing downwards over the season, drawing [honeycomb] cells,” he explains. “As they move downwards, they’re forming bands of honey.” This is how bees behave in the wild, Holmes says, and his hives aim to replicate that experience as closely as possible.
Most bees in New Zealand are managed on an industrial scale, and are shipped up, down and around the country for efficient pollination and honey production, says Holmes. It’s common practice for beekeepers to replace the top boxes after they’ve been filled with honey, tricking the bees into thinking they haven’t completed their honey production yet.
Holmes acknowledges not many beekeepers would consider Warre hives to be a commercially viable enterprise, but he takes heart from the fact that a man in Australia’s Blue Mountains is making a living with 500 of the hives.
“Originally I did a science degree, and once you’ve trained in critical thinking at observing nature’s patterns, seeing how the world works from nature’s perspective, it’s really tricky to come into beekeeping and buy the conventional line.”
The conventional line being: feeding bees sugar and synthetic pollen and putting them on crops. Holmes says he doesn’t believe that’s necessarily the best way forward.
“It’s like, hang on, they’ve been around for 300 million years without us. And they were doing pretty good.”
Holmes has been a full-time arborist for the last couple of years, paying his way as he established the hive business.
“The ultimate position is that I’d be doing regenerative land claiming, agricultural design, assessing people’s properties and designing food systems,” he says.
But for now, it’s a relatively simple idea. “Better for the bees, better for us.”