GREENKEEPER GETS A BUZZ FROM BEES
FEW budding farmers who attended Glenormiston Agricultural College with Col Winterton in the 1970s would have imagined he had much in common with the actress Scarlett Johansson, poet Sylvia Plath or Maria von Trapp from The Sound of Music.
The knockabout boy from the bush, who went on to become the course superintendent at Melbourne’s Medway Golf Club, shares the passion of the aforementioned women for bees and harvests honey from hives beside the 7th fairway.
He comes by it honestly, being the son of a farmer who helped make ends meet in the Great Depression of the 1930s by catching swarms of wild bees around his farm at Warragul and selling them to an apiarist in Bairnsdale, packed in old pinewood fruit cases which were sent down on the train.
Father George still keeps a hive at 95 and while it is tempting to attribute his great age to the healthy effects of the product, longevity runs in the family, even among the non-honey eaters.
Winterton puts one in mind of Bill Lawry, who enjoys the equally arcane pursuit of pigeon racing. Both have a wonderfully dry sense of humour and enough consideration for their fellow man to talk enthusiastically about their obsessions only when asked. Vegetarians and other minority groups could learn much from them.
At college reunions Winterton tells incredulous farmers that his work at Medway is just the same as theirs except that he cuts his grass to three millimetres. As for spending the last 37 years at the club, he applied for the top job because it came with a house on the course. He stayed on “despite there being no prospect of promotion” because he and his wife were able to give their four kids an idyllic upbringing with no fences.
He keeps five hives at Medway which produce about 40 kilos of honey per year.
“They do reasonably well,” he says of this yield. “If you want to maximise honey production, you move the bees to the flowers. If it is a hobby, the bees just find the flowers. If they produce a surplus, well and good. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter. Bee keepers just love bees.”
Away from the course he runs a business with his older brother, Brian, and is a mix of their own hives which they drive around the countryside to find the flowers, as well as bees they keep in the CBD and suburbs for clients.
“What we get from the course is described as a garden honey,” he said. “We have red gum and sugar gum trees on the course but the honey is a blend of their pollen and flowers in neighbours’ gardens. It is a good drop and unique.
“The bees have a maximum range of five kilometres so it is whatever they can get off the course and surrounding areas. This includes the Moonee Valley racecourse and the North Melbourne footy ground in Arden Street.”
His clients include the Intercontinental Hotel in the Rialto Towers in the city and the local Buddhist temple. Honey produced at the Rialto is served with high teas.
“It does not have to travel far, it just comes down five floors,” he said. “We have another three hives on a roof in South Yarra for a chocolate maker. At the Buddhist temple I met a member of the Bhutan royal family. He told me he also keeps bees. “I would encourage
anyone thinking of having a go in the city. You watch them come in with yellow or white pollen on their legs and you wonder where they got it. This is great at increasing your awareness of other things. You lift your head up. It is also the short food mile. This pot you are trying here (in his machinery shed and it was delicious) today came from the 7th fairway. When the members get it in the bar, it has only come 300 yards. Some of the honey you buy in the supermarket has come thousands of miles from China. It is not very good.”
The best way for beginners to learn is to join a bee club, he says, and buy an established hive.
“We have all been given two eyes and two ears and one mouth. Look and listen to experienced bee keepers and don’t say too much and you’ll learn a lot. It is a mentoring thing, handing down the craft,” Winterton says.
“There are plenty of hives in the city. You just need to check with your local council to see if you can have them and how many. As with the golf course, you have to be careful about using sprays.
“Don’t worry about getting stung. It only happens if you are careless. You learn to read your hives. Some days they don’t want to be worked. They don’t like humidity or thunder. But normally I work the hives without gloves and I don’t get stung. You learn to be gentle, calm and relaxed and keep your mind on the job. They can sense fear.”