WHEN Victor Croker ran away from beekeeping about 30 years ago he would have never thought it would take ballet, a good bottle of fortified wine and a garage to get him back into the game.
Victor, a third-generation beekeeper, says his paternal grandmother was the family’s first beekeeper. In 1920 she couldn’t get work as a nurse, so she got about 100 hives and took them to all the orchards in Griffith, NSW.
“Dad then had about 2500 hives,” says Victor, 50, of Amaroo.
“I left school and went straight into the family business, but in 1990 I ran away from home with the desire to do something else.
“I had only worked in the family business and hadn’t experienced other career paths.”
Victor headed to Canberra to spend two weeks with his brother and has been here ever since. Mainly working in IT, he took a 20-year break before being “tricked” into the beekeeping game again over a glass of wine by his now business partner David Leemhuis. The two met when volunteering to build props at a ballet school both their daughters attended.
David, a commercial builder, grew up on a farm in Bungendore and always wanted to get back out into the bush, so when Victor’s dad mentioned their history in beekeeping he made the business proposal.
“He always wanted to be a beekeeper but didn’t have enough knowledge behind him,” Victor says.
“Beekeeping is a bit of a dark art; people don’t share information, you learn it over generations.
“I said, ‘yeah, okay as a hobby we’ll get 10 hives’ but then he said he was thinking of a couple of hundred.”
The two started out in David’s home garage in Ngunnawal and now, under the business Australian Honeybee, based in Mitchell, they have about 1000 hives located all across Canberra.
“Beekeeping gets in your blood,” Victor says.
“Once a beekeeper, always a beekeeper. Beekeepers always find themselves gravitating back to it. We can’t help it.”
It’s been a long journey for the pair who only recently were able to leave their full-time jobs to focus on beekeeping.
“We started with about 160 traditional wooden hives and after the first season I saw how hard the bees struggled over winter in the wooden boxes,” Victor says.
“I started researching hive design and found a high-density, polystyrene hive with really good installation.”
The first to use polystyrene hives in the region, Victor and David took the risk and bought a sea container of them.
“When we got them on the ground we found the bees were 30 to 65 per cent more productive,” he says.
“They were also a lot healthier. We now produce anywhere between 100,000 and 150,000 kilograms of honey per year, depending on the season.
“We probably won’t go higher than that. We’re happy to cover our costs and live comfortably.”
They provide honey to Victoria’s Beechworth Honey brand.
But not everyone has this business model and Victor says, like any industry, there are greedy people who end up with too many hives that they can’t manage.
He says this can also lead to other issues such as the fake-honey problem, which has been highlighted in the media over the past year.
“If beekeepers take too much honey from their bees, the bees will starve; but rather than have their bees starve they feed them sugar syrup and the bees convert it into something that looks like honey but isn’t,” he says.
“We don’t feed sugar syrup, that way we’re guaranteed pure honey that’s not adulterated.
Victor says being a good beekeeper is only 30 per cent about the bees.
“It’s probably 70 per cent about the environment and the florals,” he says. “You almost have to be a botanist because you need to understand the plants the bees are targeting.”
Every species produces its own flavour and Victor’s personal favourite comes from Scribbly Gum in the Snowy Mountains, saying it tastes like salted caramel.