Honey by the tonne

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How sweet it is to visit Kangaroo Island's historic colony of Ligurian bees, writes Kate Gibbs.

Perhaps it's their renegade status that keeps us enthralled with the bee: hard workers, mass producers, a sense of social order, the mystical ability to turn an egg into a queen, and a violent sting to boot.

''Next to humans, bees are the most studied living thing on Earth,'' the manager of Island Beehive and a quietly spoken authority on all things honey, Peter Davis, says.

Bees are livestock, the same as sheep and cattle, says Davis, whose Kangaroo Island establishment extracts about 100 tonnes of organic honey a year from 1000 hives and 100 million bees. The honey producer is also a driver for the promotion of the Ligurian bee and its heritage, which is isolated and protected on the island.

In 1884, the South Australian Chamber of Manufacturers and the South Australian government pulled together to bring bees from Liguria in northern Italy, seen as having a similar climate, with the express intention of setting up a sanctuary. Here, they would remain pure without interbreeding.

''These bees and this heritage make Kangaroo Island important on a world scale as well as locally,'' Davis says.

Island Beehive is showcasing this industry to the world, to children on school trips and locals. ''I talk to locals about tourism opportunities around bees and to kids about how to become beekeepers. Because we have integrated honey production with preserving this heritage, it's interesting to visitors.''

Behind a sprawling shopfront, selling wax candles, honey candy, honey crisps and bee-shaped knick-knacks, a factory room is rich with the smell of honey; warm and waxy. The room whirrs with the sound of spinning wooden frames, from which this sugary liquid gold is drawn. It barely drowns the buzz of lost bees, which have strayed from nearby hives.


A glass-enclosed frame, filled with cells, wax, honey and bees, sits on display, a long clear tube into the wall allowing the bees to come and go as they choose. The contraption permits visitors to get up close, to watch bees arrive at the hive with pollen encased on their legs.

''He tells the others where he got it from by doing a little wiggle dance and then they feed it to the others,'' Davis says. ''The other bees watch because they want to go out to the same sort of flowers; the same area. They tell by how many time he wiggles, how many times he turns around. Pollen is the protein, honey is the carbohydrate.''

Bees' heads dive in the honey like ostriches with their heads in the sand, feeding babies or putting honey in the cells. Visitors play a game of spot the queen, which Davis says can lay 2000 eggs a day - more than the queen's own weight. The queen is larger than the other bees with an intricate ''Tipp-Ex'' mark on her back. She moves from cell to cell, dipping her tail in the cells to lay her eggs.

The show-and-tell is interspersed with tales of love and war between beekeeper and bee, and Davis rubs his arm as he tells how the bees were spooked the day before.

''We were picking up honey and a storm came over. The bees started attacking us because when your body is wet your body odours [seep from] your clothes. I got 100 stings. I was a bit red yesterday but I'm fine now,'' he says. ''We don't take people out into the hives.''

But where there is warfare there is also a deep respect for the insect. Davis, an almanac of beekeeping and bee behaviour, swears bee stings are a cure for arthritis, and says his regular intake of royal jelly, a honey-bee secretion used in the nutrition of larvae as well as queen bees, means he is rarely ill.

The job of preserving the heritage of these bees and managing hives spread over the 150-kilometre-long island is no small task.

During the past four years, more than half the island's hives have been lost due to bushfires and drought and supermarket chain Aldi, which once bought between 30 per cent and 60 per cent of the island's organic honey, is no longer a client. The farm can pull a tonne of honey an hour from its hives but extracts the honey according to need. An ongoing order from Japan for as much GM-free canola honey as Kangaroo Island can produce keeps things buzzing along.

Visitors dip tiny spoons in tasting jars of honey before departure. Coastal flora and native plants give each their distinctive flavour: stringy bark is slightly smoky, the tea-tree clean and strong and the winter flowering cup gum is delicate, with a caramel note. Which is considered the best? Davis, usually the honey guru, says: ''Ask a child which is the best - they make the best honey connoisseurs.''


1 Acacia Drive, Kingscote, Kangaroo Island. (08) 8553 0080