Robert and Melissa Dewar, who met at high school in Boonah, are based in the bushland surrounding Lake Moogerah. Robert is a third-generation beekeeper and the president of the Queensland Beekeepers Association. His parents, Laurie and Paula, who now live ‘up the hill’, started beekeeping years ago when they lived in Brisbane, and moved to the Scenic Rim to focus on the beekeeping business when Robert was a young boy. Originally, Robert and Melissa were employed by his parents, but they decided to divide the business. These days, Robert and Melissa are the beekeepers and focus on producing honey, and Laurie and Paula focus on breeding queen bees. The Dewars are certified organic beekeepers.
ROBERT & MELISSA DEWAR
How did you get into beekeeping?
ROBERT: My father and grandfather were beekeepers.
MELISSA: Robert is a third-generation beekeeper.
ROBERT: They started off small in Brisbane and then, when every neighbour’s kid ended up with a bee sting, it was always our bees. Mum and Dad got sick of the phone calls, and they were concerned, too. We probably outgrew the block we had in Coopers Plains, so we looked out here and they bought next door. We lived in a shed for a few years and worked in the Scenic Rim with all the bees.
ROBERT: My grandfather worked for Rheem Australia and he was sick of working in a shed. He and Dad decided at the same time to go into beekeeping. And Dad was a refrigeration mechanic and boilermaker by trade — he was sick of working in offices. A friend had a few beehives as a hobby, and he thought this wasn’t too bad an idea. So it grew and grew and grew.
What are the biggest challenges of beekeeping?
ROBERT: I know it probably affects all primary producers, but drought is a big thing. It normally doesn’t hit us as bad as, say, a landowner. We’re fortunate enough we can put bees on the back of a truck and ship them to somewhere that has had some rain. The last couple of years have been different because it has been such a wide area of Queensland that hasn’t had rain. So, it has made it a little bit challenging to find somewhere for us to go. Then, when you get there, there’s no guarantee the tree is going to yield any nectar or produce any pollen.
Our biggest problem is introduced pests from overseas, like the small hive beetle from America. It’s a little beetle that can live in your hive and virtually destroy it. It is not something you can really treat for because it is an insect living in a hive full of insects. It is a hard thing to treat. It needs to leave the hive to reproduce, and that’s the little window you have. As soon as it starts warming up and we get humidity, that’s when the beetle likes to breed. So, you need to shift bees around to different areas in spring to break that cycle up a bit.
Tell us about the queen.
ROBERT: Every beehive needs a queen, and for a productive hive, it needs a new queen every twelve months. If you let the bees do it themselves, the beehive ends up cranky. It inbreeds a little bit. So, you need to get different strains and lines. We have about twenty different lines of queens. They all have their own different little traits. Some might be good honey producers, and some might be just a nice, steady hive, which is good for pollination. So, Mum and Dad do that, up the hill. It’s a pretty touchy sort of a job, queen bee breeding. We export queens all around the world, all around Australia.
What are the best things about the lifestyle?
ROBERT: Some of the best things, I find, is just the people you meet. I mean, we went for a drive the other day cause where I had the bees just over the range was a bit dry and they weren’t doing that well. I rang a bloke and he gave me the phone number of someone who had a bit of clover he was irrigating, and it looked pretty good. So, I just rang the bloke and explained who I was, and he welcomed us into his home. He said, ‘This is where you can put the bees, no dramas. Give us a bit of honey.’ It is getting harder to find people like that, the way the world’s going. It’s just nice there are people still willing to help one another out.
Is it true beekeepers are leaving the industry?
ROBERT: There are a lot of families in beekeeping and you need to know … It is not something where you can buy a business with a little bit of experience. It takes a while. You need family members who have done it previously, who can help you along. But it is getting harder and harder to find bee sites. I don’t want to get all government on you, but in 2024 we won’t be able to go into any state forest or national park anymore to put our beehives. The Queensland government has come up with a conservation Act that has just come into place, and it states beehives won’t be allowed in national parks and state forests anymore, because, I guess, they’re not a native animal.
MELISSA: And that will absolutely impact us like you wouldn’t believe because our summer months, around here in the Scenic Rim, what, nearly 100% of our hives would be in national parks.
So, you’ve taken over the beekeeping business?
MELISSA: Laurie, Paula, Robert and I were all in the business together, but Robert was finding there just wasn’t enough hours [in the day]. See, with beekeeping, it is very difficult to separate your business life from your private life. I guess it is like any primary producer, anybody that runs their own business — you can’t sometimes separate the two because it is your life. It is where your income is coming from. In that regard, he was finding it very difficult to do the queens and the honey, and have a private life by the end of the week. Our kids were really small. There weren’t any arguments or anything; we just decided to split the business. Robert and I concentrated on the honey and went our own way, and Laurie and Paula concentrated on the queens. So, that’s how we took over, established our own company and started to do the bees.
How many hives do you have?
ROBERT: Around about a thousand.
And you sell organic honey …
MELISSA: We are certified organic beekeepers.
ROBERT: There’s a set of guidelines and standards we have to follow. We’ve got to be five kilometres away from any agricultural flowering crop that may need spraying or something. Bees can fly up to five kilometres but it is a bit of a stretch. Generally they average around the three-kilometer mark from their hive.
MELISSA: So you understand … At the moment, some of our bees are on clover. If Robert stripped the honey off and extracted it and we bottled it, we couldn’t put ‘certified organic’ on the label because that farm may not be five kilometres away. In that case, he’d run the first extraction, which is not organic, and then if he shifted the hives from there to a certified organic bee site, then that next extraction would be classified as certified organic.
How do you sell your honey?
ROBERT: Most of it is bulk into Capilano. There’s not a big enough market in Australia for all of our organic honey, so a fair bit of it goes into Canada.
MELISSA: Then we do private sale, too, private label, for which I do the bottling and take the orders. There’s quite a few shops around the Scenic Rim that have it: Roadvale General Store, Kalbar Bakery, Aratula Café, Poppi’s Pantry, Canungra Visitor Information Centre, Boonah Visitor Information Centre … So, yes. It is through our district quite a bit. We do a couple of organic bakeries down the coast and Wray Organics.
What do you look for when searching for a location to position your hives?
MELISSA: Not at all times during the year can we actually have our bees in the Scenic Rim, but mostly in spring and summer they’re back here. And they can be anywhere from Boonah-Beaudesert Road to up the ranges to Rathdowney …
ROBERT: Different trees flower in different seasons. At the moment, blue gums and iron barks are flowering. A little later on, you’ll have a sand gum, yellow box flowering into Christmas, and brush box that we work in the range, then another iron bark — cause there’s about six or seven different iron barks that yield honey. And then, in the new year, it is a little lean coming into autumn. It is all rain dependent. Then, through winter, to break the cycle of the small hive beetle, we put most of our bees in the Channel Country, a couple of hundred kilometres west of Charleville. They generally go out there for the winter period, which is a dry period, and the beetle hates the dry. They’re generally out there until spring when we start bringing them back.
With trees, they don’t respond straight away to rain, so we’re always keeping an eye on weather patterns and rainfall for next season, because that’s when that rain will reflect in the tree. But you can go to a tree and find buds before they flower, so you have a heads up. Then you just need that shower of refreshing rain for the tree to blossom and produce nectar. It doesn’t really do it in the dry. You get the rain, say, now, and next year we might move the bees to where that rain fell, and the trees will start to flower, but if we don’t get that follow-up rain on the trees, the tree will flower but not produce any nectar.
We’ve read about the big problems the industry is facing in the US.
ROBERT: It is definitely a pesticide problem. Unfortunately, in America, they’re going from one crop to another crop to another crop. They don’t have the big forests that yield nectar and pollen where they can put their bees to clean out the pesticide residue left in the hive. It builds up in the wax. So, that needs to be regenerated out of the system in good forested country that hasn’t any pesticides or residues the bees can pick up. Because a lot of the pesticides now … Years ago they just sprayed something and whatever the spray hit it killed. That was the end of it. Now, they’re making pesticides that can stay in the flower for a couple of weeks. Years ago, if the bee was sprayed it would die in the paddock and it wouldn’t affect the hive. Well, it would affect the hive because it’d lose whatever bees were out flying, but the bees wouldn’t bring that poison back to the hive to affect the young bees. But now … It is one of main reasons we want to try to keep these forests open because it will end up like America. We’ll end up losing a lot of bees. Bees get exported to America from Australia to help out with pollination over there. One in every three mouthfuls of food needs pollination at some stage.
The government realises it is worth about a billion dollars to Queensland finances — that’s the value beekeeping adds to crops throughout Queensland. There are people up there at the moment finishing macadamia pollination up in Bundaberg. A macadamia tree doesn’t really need bees to pollinate it, but they’re getting thirty to forty per cent increase in yield having the bees on there. So, they’re turning a farm that may not be that viable into a farm that is very viable.
People out there don’t understand bees can’t just live on crops. They need that break away from crops to give them respite. Though they’re still working, you need to get bees away from sprays so they can regenerate.
Do you have a favourite honey?
MELISSA: I find the darker the honey, the stronger the flavour. I like the light-coloured runny ones. Yellow box. There’s nothing better than straight from the frame. You dip your finger in it and, oh!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
MELISSA: You don’t really come across a dishonest beekeeper. That’s what I have found. I was a townie, so I knew nothing about bees before marrying Robert. If one beekeeper is having trouble — he’s driven around to all his sites and the trees aren’t doing any good — then that beekeeper tells another beekeeper and along the chain … Well, next minute this beekeeper will get a phone call from that beekeeper saying, ‘I’ve got a spare site. Shift them onto there.’ It is a very close-knit community.