LET IT BEE

On the leather­wood honey trail in Tas­ma­nia.

Australian Traveller - - Contents - WORDS DAVID LEVELL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BROOK JAMES

HAVE I BEEN LURED to some se­cret pa­gan rite in this lonely for­est clear­ing? Mys­te­ri­ous fig­ures, masked and white-clad, puff smoke from burn­ers while at­tend­ing a clus­ter of squat white pil­lars against a back­drop of tow­er­ing trees. The air hums with an un­earthly in­ten­sity and count­less blurred black dots zoom in all di­rec­tions. No, not Beelze­bub. Bees. If this is na­ture wor­ship then it’s the most prac­ti­cal, no-non­sense kind: the sum­mer har­vest of leather­wood honey, an ut­terly or­ganic del­i­cacy only ob­tain­able in Tas­ma­nia’s western wilder­ness. Stand­ing in a buzzing cloud, a bee­keeper hands me a sticky lump of golden honeycomb. I flee like an an­i­mated car­toon bear, trailed by bees, un­til I’m far enough from the hives to risk lift­ing my mask for a hur­ried bite. It’s de­li­cious be­yond de­scrip­tion, this ‘dis­til­late of the wilder­ness’, as api­arist Ju­lian Wolfha­gen calls it. His Tas­ma­nian Honey Com­pany, founded in 1978, is one of six out­fits pro­duc­ing 85 per cent of the state’s honey, of which some 70 to 80 per cent is leather­wood. Even more than the pink-eye potato, per­haps, leather­wood honey is the quin­tes­sen­tial taste of Tas­ma­nia. “Leather­wood has a won­der­ful flo­ral bou­quet,” says Ju­lian. “It’s quite a chal­leng­ing, so­phis­ti­cated flavour: spicy and com­plex. Like oys­ters and opera, it’s a bit of an ac­quired taste.” Hail­ing from a Mid­lands farm­ing fam­ily, Ju­lian has al­ways found bees fas­ci­nat­ing. “My grand­fa­ther had hives – and won­der­ful old bee­keep­ing books from the 19th cen­tury, which added a bit of mys­tery to it.” It’s a clear Fe­bru­ary day and Ju­lian’s team are check­ing their West Coast Range sites be­tween Tul­lah and Queen­stown. “Be­ing

out in com­plete na­ture – there’s no bet­ter place,” says Ju­lian. “And work­ing in a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship with an in­sect is a pretty cool thing to do. I love bees. There’s al­ways some­thing new to learn and they’re only do­ing good, pol­li­nat­ing plants.” We’ve just driven the B28, Tas­ma­nia’s most wildly scenic road. Stark moun­tains stud­ded with pink rocks loom road­side; cobalt lakes are framed by more dis­tant peaks. But as much as Ju­lian’s bee­keep­ers rel­ish be­ing here, no­body’s stand­ing around rhap­so­dis­ing (ex­cept me; that’s my job). Six men, 16 hives and up to 1.3 mil­lion bees add up to fu­ri­ous ac­tiv­ity – es­pe­cially from the bees. Look­ing like a chest of draw­ers from Vin­nies, a bee­hive is ba­si­cally a stack of white wooden boxes, each con­tain­ing eight to 10 frames that the bees fill with honeycomb. The low­est two boxes are for the bees. The oth­ers (‘su­pers’) are ours. The bees don’t nec­es­sar­ily agree, so smok­ers packed with burn­ing pine nee­dles are puffed lib­er­ally as a calm-bee-down dur­ing col­lec­tion. Their most ob­vi­ous vex­a­tion is ‘bee bounc­ing’ – whack­ing su­pers against metal frames to jolt out the thou­sands in­side in a bee-wildered clump. This is a vi­tal pre­lude to check­ing frames for honeycomb, load­ing the truck with full su­pers and putting emp­ties on the hives. Back at base the honey is ex­tracted by cen­trifuge, fil­tered and bot­tled. Bee­keep­ers lease sites from land man­agers such as Forestry Tas­ma­nia and the Parks & Wildlife Ser­vice. Hives are left alone for a cou­ple of weeks while the bees for­age for nec­tar, rang­ing as far as maybe three kilo­me­tres. Their in­nate nav­i­ga­tional ge­nius and habit of spend­ing nights in the hive en­sure they aren’t lost; at sea­son’s end the hives are trucked home overnight. The honey is guar­an­teed to be leather­wood, I’m told, be­ing the only tree flow­er­ing this time of year (Fe­bru­ary). Once pointed out, leather­wood in bloom is un­mis­tak­able: white flow­ers pep­per­ing the thick for­est like sum­mer snow­drops. It’s ac­tu­ally two Eu­cryphia species (lu­cida and mil­li­ganii), both unique to Tas­ma­nia, al­though a South Amer­i­can rel­a­tive named ulmo also yields a dis­tinc­tive honey. “It tastes some­what sim­i­lar,” says Ju­lian. “But not the same, for­tu­nately – not quite as good!” Al­though leather­wood dates to di­nosaur days, its na­tive pol­li­na­tors are non-hiv­ing in­sects such as march flies. Hon­ey­bees reached Tas­ma­nia with Bri­tish colonists, but leather­wood wasn’t tar­geted be­fore West Coast set­tle­ment blos­somed with min­ing just over a cen­tury ago. And the busi­ness only truly got un­der­way in the mid-20th cen­tury, when new roads gave for­est ac­cess to hive trucks. In other words, it’s a taste 70 mil­lion years in the mak­ing.

HEAD­ING TO THE HILLS

In the north-west, sleepy Maw­banna is tucked 14 kilo­me­tres in­land be­tween coastal Burnie and Smith­ton. The road twists through for­est be­fore open­ing onto vis­tas of rolling hills and a hori­zon gar­landed by the blueish peaks that in­spired Rob­bie Charles’ fa­ther, Rueben, when he founded Blue Hills Honey in 1955. “Dad was the first to ex­port leather­wood to Ja­pan, back in the early ’60s,” says Rob­bie, who made a bee­line to the fam­ily busi­ness from school.

“The Sav­age River pipeline opened in ’67 and that’s our big­gest area now. We run, prob­a­bly, 1000 hives there.” Blue Hills are the north­ern­most of the six main firms, with 1800 hives across the Tarkine wilder­ness. “Our leather­wood has a re­ally soft fin­ish,” says Nicola Charles, Rob­bie’s wife and Blue Hills’ man­ager. “Each re­gion has its own pro­file; we think our pH is a bit more neu­tral than some of the other leather­woods. You do get ter­roir.” You get big vari­a­tions in out­put, too; Mother Na­ture is a fickle busi­ness part­ner. A cold, wet or windy sum­mer – hello, 2017 – plays havoc with sup­ply. Bees don’t for­age in the rain, or fly much below 15ºC, and leather­wood needs about 20ºC to flower. “This is the nicest day we’ve had for three weeks,” says Rob­bie, glad to see sun­shine as he works his hives. “If we’d had this weather be­fore we would have a lot of honey by now. What we’ve got now is about half a crop, but an­other fort­night like this and they might fill again.” Weather isn’t the only chal­lenge. “There’s been a lot of leather­wood ter­ri­tory lost over the years,” says Nicola. “Some ar­eas are dif­fi­cult to get to. Bridges have washed out in flood and we’ve had to fly bees in.” Other novel so­lu­tions in­clude the touris­tic West Coast Wilder­ness Rail­way, which third-gen­er­a­tion api­ary R. Stephens uses to get hives into for­est out­side Stra­han. Un­like other trees, leather­wood can’t re­cover from bush­fire. Every burn whit­tles down re­serves, and 2016 was a shocker, with 72,000 hectares razed in the north­west and Blue Hills evac­u­ated. Given this, it seems in­cred­i­ble that leather­wood isn’t a pro­tected species, but it’s still ex­ten­sively logged – mostly as eu­ca­lypt by­catch. “We used to run 1000 hives within 10 miles of Maw­banna and it all got logged out,” Rob­bie says. “Once they clear-fell and burn it, leather­wood doesn’t re­gen­er­ate. Rather than be­ing a mixed for­est, they turn it into a dry eu­ca­lypt for­est. Then when there’s a fire they won­der why it all burns. They change the whole ecol­ogy of the place.” This has wider im­pli­ca­tions than the sur­vival of a bou­tique in­dus­try. As Tas­ma­nia’s rich­est and most re­li­able nec­tar flow, leather­wood sus­tains the bees that un­der­pin the state’s en­tire pol­li­na­tion-de­pen­dent agri­cul­ture. And sup­ply will never be se­cured by plan­ta­tions, be­cause leather­wood needs a cen­tury or so to yield a pro­duc­tive nec­tar flow. As Ju­lian says, “Peo­ple who in­vest money like to get a re­turn while they’re still alive.”

With leather­wood a wild re­source, pro­found un­der­stand­ing of its home range is para­mount. “Every site is a dif­fer­ent mi­cro­cli­mate, which af­fects the rate bees col­lect,” says An­thony van Bo­he­men, one of Ju­lian’s bee­keep­ers. “Bees are sen­si­tive to slight vari­a­tions of tem­per­a­ture and it takes time to learn the per­son­al­ity of each area.” “I spend a lot of time driv­ing, just look­ing at the en­vi­ron­ment,” Ju­lian con­sid­ers. “You re­ally have to know your coun­try and look at the trees and un­der­stand botany, weather pat­terns, and be able to know where honey will be.” We can only hope there’ll al­ways be enough leather­wood trees for Tas­ma­nia’s bee­keep­ers to keep on know­ing where honey will be. Even if we can never know the West Coast as deeply, our ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its nat­u­ral won­ders can be as heart­felt. And noth­ing en­hances that ap­pre­ci­a­tion like tast­ing the pro­duce that speaks of this wild, pure coun­try most truly, most deeply, most sweetly.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: The dis­tinc­tive bloom of the leather­wood tree; Each tier of a bee­hive con­tains eight to 10 frames that bees fill with honeycomb; A site with 16 hives can house up to 1.3 mil­lion bees. OP­PO­SITE: A Tas­ma­nian Honey Com­pany bee­keeper in­spect­ing hives in the Tas­ma­nian wilder­ness be­tween Tul­lah and Queen­stown.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Leather­wood is en­demic to Tas­ma­nia; The honey in­dus­try be­gan in the mid-20th cen­tury when new roads gave for­est ac­cess to hive trucks; A frame drips with bees and honeycomb; A bee­keeper tend­ing to a hive; On closer in­spec­tion.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: Bee­keep­ers check on leather­wood blooms near hives in the Tyn­dall Range area; Visit the Melita Honey Farm in Chudleigh; Ju­lian Wolfha­gen, founder of the Tas­ma­nian Honey Com­pany; Frames filled with honeycomb. OP­PO­SITE: A hive of ac­tiv­ity at a Tas­ma­nian Honey Com­pany site.

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