Fluffy bums and fault lines
“New Zealand has experienced 45 earthquakes in the past 24 hours.” Frank gleefully clicks on an animated topographic map. “Little ones!” he assures me. It’s 10:30 pm on my first night in Wellington. We’ve been checking out local apiaries on Google Earth, and now Frank is tormenting me with tectonic activity. He traces a fault line across the North Island, “and that is where we’re going tomorrow.”
Frank is a semi-retired beekeeper who calls himself a “hobbyist” though he manages 400 hives and produces honey on a commercial scale. He picked me up at 11 this morning, and we went straight to work. Well, sort of. . .
“All beekeepers are thieves,” Frank says with a wink, crouching to fill a basket of strawberries. We’re checking the honey flow at a bee site north of Wellington. The weather has been bad this summer, but still we’re climbing up lean-to lids to peer into colonies stacked seven boxes high. After working with short, portable, migratory hives in Australia, these brightly-painted skyscrapers take me by surprise. “This is normal,” Frank insists. “This is average.”
We spend the next half hour picking raspberries and loganberries, and we make off with six small cartons of fruit. “It’s quality control.” Frank laughs. “As beekeepers, we need to make sure these bees are pollinating the plants.”
“All beekeepers are botanists,” Frank says as we drive to the next apiary. He points out tutu plants lining the roadside. The passion vine hopper (Scolypopa spp. or “fluffy bum” among friends) draws sap from this plant, causing it to exude honeydew that can be toxic to humans. Frank also shows me aloe vera leaves that take the hurt out of a sting and a tree whose hormones Maori women once used as birth control. He tells me to chew on a handful of leaves, and when my gums go numb he says that this plant was once used to treat toothaches.
As we drive around Lothlorien, Frank provides a running narrative of local history and recent happenings. I’m already speculating that beekeepers make the best tour guides. Then Frank tells me about the time he rescued a swarm from the Lord of the Rings set. Apparently, the bees settled inside one of the (Styrofoam) boulders that the Orcs launched in the siege at Helms Deep. That does it. I’m convinced.
“The things you learn beekeeping!” Frank says with a grin.
Editor’s Note: Tutu trees (Coriaria spp.) exude sap that contains a neurotoxin called tutin. The vine hoppers eat the sap and excrete honeydew, a sweet and sticky liquid. Honey bees collect the excretion and process it just like nectar. According to Wikipedia, the last recorded deaths from eating tutin-tainted honey occurred in the 1890s, although outbreaks of tutin honey poisoning still occur.