It’s a three-person assembly line. Junior loads the supers onto a metal rack, where a mechanical arm punches up from below. The laden frames are caught on a conveyor belt that runs like a Ferris wheel. This pushes them towards a vibrating knife that peels caps from comb. Farther down the line, I scrape wax from top bars (it feels like flipping pancakes) while John uses a wide-comb wool shearer to open the caps the knife missed. The honey is bright and warm, and it pours like money down the slick steel slide.It’s efficient, but it’s also a mess. By lunchtime, I’m delighted to find watermelon honey dripping out my armpits. This isn’t specialty honey; it’s the by-product of a pollination contract with a watermelon grower. After extraction, we’ll blend it with other light-colored honeys. That’s a shame, I think, because this honey is bizarre. It has a light pink taste . . . something a little like water and melons. John doesn’t like it and says that coolabah (Eucalyptus coolabah) trees yield the best kind of honey. “Next to coolabah,” he says, “all the rest of your honey is mouthwash.” But I think it’s alright.
After lunch, I try to trade places on the assembly line. I move to lift a honey super onto the conveyor belt, but when I wrap my arms around the 35-kg (77 lb) deep, the best I can manage is a strained and sticky hug. Junior tells me I’m too little to be a beekeeper, but I would do well as an assistant. John says forget about my height. He’s just five-foot-seven, and the tall guys have back problems. I go back to flipping pancakes.
The work is loud and long, monotonous in a wonderful way. Once in a while, a stray bee lands on my sweaty honey neck, softly deciding not to sting. When we stop for a cuppa, John digs up the record player from a garage sale box. The extractor drowns out the music, but I feel like dancing anyway.
We work all afternoon. Then it’s watermelon and beer for tea, and Dr. Who has just encountered the Dalek Emperor. During commercial breaks, John begins to explain his complicated relationship with the honey packers who have recently begun to mix Australian honey with Chinese and Argentine imports, which are cheap and of questionable content.
It’s more politics than I expected from this sort of occupation and only the first of several lessons regarding the business of beekeeping, but our conversation is cut short. The Dalek Emperor looks like a giant squid, and he means to destroy planet earth.
Editor’s note: If you don’t remember hearing of a coolibah tree, think back to the lyrics of “Walzing Maltila.” The first verse goes like this:
Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled
“You’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me.”