Busy bee business

Philip Hopkins

TRUST is important in business, but Wombat Honey has taken that quality to a new level: it has faith that its customers will pay money for honey even when there is no seller present.

The sales point, a little yellow hut adorned with a bee logo on the side of the Princes Highway just west of Orbost, operates on a honesty basis. Yes, there is a camera inside that takes photos of people who don’t pay, but according to beekeeper Glenn Lavell, buyers overwhelmingly do the right thing.

Mr Lavell is the ‘face’ and third generation member of the family business, along with brother Jason and their second-generation father Paul, who has led the development of the honey enterprise over the past 10-15 years. Their grandfather/father had started the business as a hobby years before.

“I fit in as marketing and packing the honey. Paul and Jason are the beekeepers,” said Mr Lavell. They are the ones who are out in the field, trucking beehives around on pallets.

How many bees do they look after? “You’d have a job counting bees in a hive,” said Mr Lavell, but on average, four hives make up a pallet in the field. “They have ways of separating the bees and the honey; they can then take pallets of honey from the site to the shed, and then process them offsite.

“The biggest source for a beekeeper is to find a source of nectar (the super rich liquid produced by plants from which the bees make the honey). They look for trees to see how they are flowering. They know areas; they are in tune with the geographic area of Victoria. They know where trees should be.”

Mr Lavell said Jason and Paul target a particular area, such as the grey box, flowering in autumn. “They know where specific grey boxes are; they then put the beehives as close as they can to the source, usually at the foot of the trees. They put an array – up to 20 pallets in the local area,” he said.

This could be on private property under an agreement with the landowner or on state government land for which they pay royalties.

Wombat Honey has about 1600 hives; about 100 produce queens bees, not honey, but the bulk produce honey. About half a dozen bee businesses operate in Gippsland.

The biggest current problem for all players is the presence of the Varroa mite, an external parasitic pest that attacks and feeds on honey bees. The Varroa mite can reproduce only in a honey bee colony.

“It’s been in the world. Fortunately, we have not had to deal with it – it hasn’t happened here yet; the spread has not left New South Wales,” Mr Lavell said.

“It targets the bees like a tick. It’s like having a basketball-sized tick on you – it latches on to the bee and takes that size compared to a bee and sucks the life out of the bee. From there, no bees, no beehives …

“However, the biggest concern is the restrictions it has in place – similar to COVID.”

Lockdowns in NSW have had an impact. “We rely on the Riverina to produce reliable sources of honey,” he said.

Wombat Honey’s operational travels go beyond Gippsland, but not this year due to travel restrictions. “We do have issues travelling over the border, we can’t do it now.”

At any time, Wombat Honey has up to seven or eight different varieties in the shop, but may produce 10 o12. “I prefer pure honey. We can travel the bees to a location and mix 50-50. It can be still a nice honey, but pure honey does taste better and you can market it as one honey type,” Mr Lavell said.

“There’s multiple, hundreds of trees; if they produce nectar, then bees can produce honey from them, so I’ve got an array of different samples in the shed. We’ve had 20 in the past three years that we have produced and packed for marketing.”

The roadside sales – the bulk of the sales – are a winner.

“They are so visible. We have multiple outlets down the line, as far east as Orbost and Cann River and as far west as Neerim South, and are looking to Melbourne,” he said.

There is a ‘gentlemen’s code’ amongst honey makers.

“If another honey producer is in a shop, that may not work for the shop owner.

“If we enter a shop where honey is sold, the silent rule is not to intrude on someone else.

“It works better for each of us if we find another place without honey. We can benefit ourselves by doing that,” he said.

Glenn said the company was definitely looking down the line, towards Melbourne, for further outlets.

He is contemplating buying a heating facility that can produce more volume.

“We have plenty in our stocks; two beekeepers can produce a lot, more that we can sell,” he said, but with a bigger packing facility, the business could increase the volume and sell its products further afield. “It’s the logistical route, but it needs half a dozen places to make it worthwhile for fuel. You can make it in a day with drop-offs and deliveries.”

It’s a family business; it’s all about teamwork.

“I work for myself and have no employees. We help each other; I help with processing the honey, they help with packing the honey,” Mr Lavell said.

Gippsland Farmer

The Gippsland Farmer is a monthly agricultural newspaper reporting on rural news and distributed FREE and direct to an area covering from Cann River through to South Gippsland. For more than 40 years Gippsland Farmer has reported on a range of issues and industries including dairy, beef, vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, organic farming, and viticulture.