“Bees are a bit like horses - they can sense fear,” Sticky cheerfully explains as he finishes zipping up his white beekeeping suit and strides towards the hives. “If you’re calm and gentle with them, they will be placid with you.”
If that’s true, it’s easy to see why Sticky rarely gets stung. I watch from a nervous distance as he works the hives with precision and care, deftly lifting off the lid and levering out each frame inside for a quick health check of the bees before gently returning each one to its place. As he works, the bees continue flying to and from the hive unperturbed.
Sticky – who was known by his real name Dave Adams before the nickname, literally, stuck – has been caring for bees in New Zealand for more than 15 years. He’s now Head Beekeeper at Manuka Pharm and responsible for the welfare of all the bees living in the company’s 10,000 hives across the country’s North and South Islands. With up to 60,000 bees in each colony, it means Sticky’s team looks after a staggering 600 million bees during peak Manuka season.
The beekeeping team he leads check on each hive at least once every two weeks for signs of problems or disease. They create new homes for any colonies which have grown too large and make sure all the bees under their care have access to the best Manuka bushes.
The job isn’t easy – one bee hive needs at least four acres of flowering plants to feed on, so all the company’s hives are carefully spaced across hundreds of thousands of acres of rugged New Zealand countryside. Some are in locations so remote there is no road access and the only way beekeepers can reach them is to get out of their 4x4 trucks and hike. The team are constantly on the move from one site to the next, with each pair of bee keepers checking up to 150 hives every day.
Manuka bushes only flower for six to 12 weeks every summer but exactly when depends on a lot of variables, including the weather and where in New Zealand they are growing. Coming into the summer flowering season, Sticky works seven days a week to make sure all the beekeepers and equipment are in the right place at the right time, as well as checking every hive is functioning at full strength before the Manuka bushes bloom in each area.
It’s hard work but nothing beats it, as far as Sticky is concerned. “There’s a real joy in working with the bees, creating new life and helping the environment by keeping alive colonies which pollinate the plants around them,” he says, gesturing enthusiastically at the hives. “And I’m outside in the fresh air every day. I can’t think of anything more beautiful.”
Sticky fell in love with beekeeping while working in conservation nearly two decades ago. Now, he is passing his knowledge down to the next generation in the form of his 18-year-old son Josh, who has also started working as a Manuka Pharm beekeeper. Josh used to tag along with his dad as a child but it was only when he started to make hive frames and honey boxes as a teenager that he realised he was more into beekeeping than the carpentry course he was studying.
His father has already instilled in him the same desire to nurture the bees. Josh is particularly skilled at creating new colonies, which happens when beekeepers introduce a new queen to a group of worker bees. “I’m most interested in growing bees,” he explains. “I like being able to see the life we create.”
Sticky and Josh’s shared passion means they get to spend quality time together in a natural environment, away from screens and other stresses of modern life. It’s clear from watching them work together that Sticky really treasures this chance to be with his teenage son, while Josh has huge respect for his dad’s knowledge, describing him as “a great tutor”. “It’s a real honour to be able to teach Josh what I know and watch him develop,” Sticky tells me quietly. “I’m hoping he will pass the same skills on to his own children one day.”
I leave father and son, wearing identical beekeeping suits, standing together with their heads bent over a hive, with wood smoke curling gently around their feet from the small handheld smokers they use to calm the bees. Both are so absorbed in their work they only glance up to give a brief wave goodbye as our 4x4 slowly bounces out of the field and drives away.