beekeepers guest posts

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. . .

Towering hives in New Zealand.

“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.

Lothlorien, Elvin forest in “Lord of the Rings.”


  • Actually you don’t feel them. You only feel the big ones and these sound like the noise of a bus coming up the road and then you feel a small single shake or perhaps a little up and down then a slight bump sideways.

    These are the size of 4 and larger but these larger ones only occur two or three times a year where we are. Christchurch at the moment is another matter. Its still settling down after three big ones and could take another 18 months before they diminish all together.

    The really big ones occur only every 300 to 600 years so chances are we will likely miss them.

    The earth is moving all the time. look

    Same with the USA look at or just Google earthquakes world wide.

    The realisation that the earth was moving was a bit of a shock for Maggie.

  • Sarah,

    I’ve lived all along the west coast—California, Oregon, and Washington—and they all rattle and shake. I have an uncanny ability to feel the small ones. Sometimes, in a group of people, I will suddenly say, “Did you feel that!” and my friends give me this blank kind of look as if I’ve truly lost it. But now I just jot down the time and then look it up on the web . . . and there it is, all graphed out! It’s great fun proving you’re not crazy.

  • Tutin is a neurotoxin, the effects of which on humans range from nausea and vomiting through to seizures (similar to epileptic seizures) and in some cases death. The most recent mass poisoning of humans by tutin-contaminated comb honey occurred between January and April 2008, with toxic honey produced by a Whangamata hobby beekeeper. Twenty-two people required treatment – some were hospitalised – with symptoms ranging from nausea through to seizures and unconsciousness. The contamination of honey by tutin has been known about for over a century, with cases of toxic honey poisoning in New Zealand resulting from ignorance or incompetence on the part of the beekeeper in producing and harvesting tutin-contaminated honey in known risk areas north of Kaikoura during hot, dry summers.

  • This is the second kind of poisonous honey I’ve heard of, the other one being rhododendron. Are there any other poisonous honeys out there?

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