Bees know best

Deane Woollam dressed in protective gear.

Two years have passed since colonies of bees were poisoned in the Constantia valley. Father and son, Lawrence and Deane Woollam, are urban beekeepers whose business, Cape Honey, was hurt when wine producers used poison to kill ants on their vines.

Speaking recently from their Soetvlei beehives, Lawrence described how he got into beekeeping in 2003.

“A swarm of bees started nesting in the pool pump cover in our Zandvlei home. We hired a beekeeper to remove them.”

Fascinated by the process of relocating the bees, he read more about beekeeping and decided to pick up the hobby.

He sourced apiary sites to rehome swarms of bees and the number of hives grew. He learnt the tricks of the trade from the Cape Town community of beekeepers. Since then, the business took shape organically and he began removing swarms commercially.

Honey production became a by-product of the removals and the demand for Cape Honey product grew with Lawrence deciding to keep bees full-time. That was 17 years ago.

“As with every beekeeper, our journey started with one hive,” says Deane, who joined his dad in 2015. “It wasn’t long until we started producing our own hives amending the 1851 design of the Langstroth beehive. We continue to develop new strategies to maximize honey production, improve swarm health and make it easier to harvest.”

The hives named after Reverend Langstroth, are stacking rectangular boxes with removable frames for the bees to build comb in. Cape Honey has hives in Constantia Hills, Constantia Heights, Kommetjie, Capri, Barrydale and Greyton.

“We have a depot site in Constantia that we visit regularly and visit the other sites every six weeks to harvest honey and check on our swarms,” says Deane.

And that is what they were doing at Soetvlei. From inception in the beehive to a jar, Deane says honey starts as nectar.

“It’s collected by foraging bees, the oldest bees in the colony, and brought back to the hive. Enzymes in the bees turn the nectar into honey, which is stored in six-sided wax cells called comb. The bees use their wings to fan the honey, reducing the moisture content to avoid fermentation. The honey is then capped with wax for long-term storage.

“At this point, we crop the honey and bring it back to our bottling facility. The cappings are scraped off, and the frames are spun in a centrifuge to remove the honey.”

They bottle liquid honey in plastic squeeze bottles, plastic tubs and glass jars.

Lawrence says pure, raw honey crystallises after a while, so it’s important to bottle it swiftly. The honey is then sold to retailers.

Lawrence says that as much as humans like to be in control, he and Deane have realised that the bees know best.

“They’ve been around for millions of years and have developed survival strategies that leave us in awe – we believe that we can guide the bees, but their success, and ours, is ultimately up to the swarm.”

As for being stung, they say it’s part of the job. “We do our best to reduce exposure, but the bees always find a way to bypass our protective clothing,” says Deane.

“Our suits often get torn in the field, giving angry bees an opportunity to strike. Smoke helps to calm the bees and to mask the sweet-smelling attack pheromone that bees use to mark their targets.”

Although painful, bee stings don’t seem to affect Lawrence, but Deane develops a rash after about five stings.

Deane says consumers should check the price when buying honey.

“Cheap honey has most likely been adulterated, mixed, overheated, fine-strained and with non-honey additives. The highest quality honey will crystallise over time.”

And the best place to buy real honey is from a local beekeeper.

Lawrence says many beekeepers sell their products direct, making it far cheaper than buying from a retailer. It also ensures that the honey is pure.

Lawrence says beekeeping is a career that feels like a hobby.

“We often remark on how lucky we are to get paid for spending time in nature.”

Their favourite part of the job is seeing the queen bee, which is usually a sign that removal has been successful and that they have saved another swarm from pest control companies.

Licking dripping honey from the back of their bakkie they smile.

“The world as we know it wouldn’t exist without bees,” says Lawrence.

Cape Honey offers a swarm-removal service and also removes invasive wasps from commercial and residential properties..

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