Meet the bee keeping family that’s got us buzzing
In Bethells there are a lot of bees. They’re the hard-working creatures behind Earthbound, a range of honey, honeygars (honey vinegars), candles and skin products produced in West Auckland’s Bethells Valley.
The small family business, owned by Terry and Karlene Shaw-Toomey, is underpinned by a love of bees. A lot of care goes into each jar of their raw honey. Their bees are cared for naturally, with honey harvested from hives in the least disruptive way possible.
They are also left with enough honey for winter, a time when they don’t produce any. (Most commercial operators strip honey from the hives, leaving bees to drink sugar water over winter.) This, and the fact that the bees feed on pesticide-free native flowers in the beautiful valley and coastal surrounds of Terry and Karlene’s home, means Earthbound bees are healthier and happier, or so Karlene believes. “We hope they’re happy – they make us happy,” she laughs.
The Shaw-Toomeys started Earthbound in 2006 after a leg injury left Terry unable to continue his work in the print industry. After eight years as a hobbyist beekeeper, it was an easy decision to swap his long commute for a work-from-home, passion-powered lifestyle.
Although starting a business has been hard, he says, they always fought to make it work. “We didn’t have a back-up plan – it wasn’t an option for it not to work.” Last year was the first in which the business made a profit, although they still managed to raise a family and pay off a house along the way. Eventually Karlene started “loving the bees” too, and gave up her landscaping work to join forces with Terry. The honey was sold to friends initially but is now stocked around the country. Most people become repeat customers – even those based overseas. “People track us down,” says Karlene.
They are continually innovating and recently added beeswax food wrap to their line-up. Tattoo balm and beard conditioner are on the way. When they’re not tending the hives or packing honey, Terry focuses on sales and marketing, while Karlene makes skin products and candles and looks after the finances.
The hub of the business, aside from 400 happy hives, is the commercial kitchen and packing facility in the couple’s garage. Their four-hectare property – set in native bush and dotted with trucks, dogs (there are seven altogether), chickens, fruit trees and vegetable gardens – is also home to Karlene’s parents and, at times, the family’s three grown sons.
The business provides a handy holiday job for the boys – they have all recently moved home to help in various ways. Eldest son Graydon, 23, and girlfriend Kyra (the pair met while Kyra was a Wwoofer – a Willing Worker on Organic Farms – at Earthbound) have been working there for a year. Connor, 21, lends a hand with odd jobs between work, and Cohen, 18, who has just moved back for some time out and a few home-cooked meals, helps out along with girlfriend Kayla.
Terry says they’d love to pass the business on to their children. “Where businesses becomes successful is where they’re multi-generational,” he says, although he also admits he “can’t imagine retiring”.
Neighbours are essential in the small, isolated community, and Terry and Karlene know most of theirs. It was “a crazy old guy” down the road who introduced Terry to beekeeping and gave him his first hives, while others in the community have allowed the couple to place hives on their properties. “We’ve been really lucky with all our neighbours,” says Karlene. “They’re very supportive of our business. We wouldn’t have been
able to do it without them.” One neighbour keeps Earthbound hives on her out-of-use tennis court, which is surrounded by 300-year-old pohutukawas.
Some of their other bees feed on manuka, bush and wild flowers, with Earthbound producing honey for each variation. One of their manuka honeys has been tested and certified as having an MGO (methylglyoxal, an antibacterial compound) rating of 100+.
Terry and Karlene have consciously aimed to keep their business small, with a focus on quality over quantity and a limited number of hives. They believe industrialisation is detrimental to the New Zealand honey industry. Terry spent time at a commercial operation while learning the ropes, but opted to do things more naturally at Earthbound. He uses smoke instead of chemicals to calm bees before harvesting honey, and scrapes frames onsite so he can leave hives intact, instead of leaving bees with nowhere to go.
The couple are passionate about the nature of their work and the role bees play in the ecosystem. They are happy that more people are choosing to keep hives on their properties, but stress that they need to be cared for properly. Their advice for those wanting to give beekeeping a go is to research and test the waters before committing. Join a club or tag along with a beekeeper, or enlist somebody to manage your hives if you are short of time.
Beekeepers need to register their hives, too, and be able to recognise the signs of illness to ensure diseases are treated before they spread. It’s a big commitment, but the payoffs are worth it, says Terry. Although one hazard is unavoidable: “There are no two ways about it; you’re gonna get stung.”
Did you know
- Bees are either born as a queen, male drone or sterile female worker bee. Each has a specific role, with jobs including foraging, cleaning and mating. “They’re born knowing what to do, and they’re born doing a job that they know they will die for,” says Karlene.
- A male bee’s sole purpose is to mate with a queen bee – they die after completing this task.
- Most bees live for just a few weeks or months, depending on the season. “They literally work themselves to death,” says Karlene. A queen lives for about three to five years because she is fed royal jelly.
- A hive has to remain at a consistent temperature to ensure young bees develop safely. To achieve this, bees will fan air with their wings and absorb heat by pressing themselves against hive walls.
- Bees communicate with each other through tools such as a ‘waggle dance’ and the use of pheromones.
Photography by: Todd Eyre.