Rory and Hannah O’Brien have put everything into their beekeeping business – both financially and emotionally – and there is no turning back as they aim for the day when the business supports them.
Now based at Te Mata in the Waikato, the pair initially sold their house and used the money to buy their first hives.
Originally from the Thames area, Rory and Hannah met at 17. Straight out of school, Rory followed in his parents’ footsteps and went dairy farming while Hannah trained to become a primary school teacher.
“We farmed in Thames, and all over the Waikato, then had a change of scene in Cromwell,” says Hannah.
Here Rory became involved in beekeeping, and discovered he had a passion for it. “It was outside, working with animals, and seasonal. He loved it. We both felt it was something we could make progress in,” says Hannah.
By then the couple already had Kieran, now aged five, and Alice, now two, was on the way. They moved up to the Coromandel to be near family and started their own beekeeping enterprise called Hunt and Gather Bee Co. “We sold up our house and used the money to buy our first hives,” says Hannah.
Those first few months were full on. They lived with Rory’s parents on the farm. Rory looked after the beekeeping and the children, while holding down a part-time painting job. Hannah worked as a full-time teacher in Hamilton, doing the gruelling daily commute from the Coromandel.
There was method in their madness though. “There are quite a lot of beekeepers in the Coromandel and land is expensive. We intended to move to the Waikato, somewhere near Raglan, where my mother lives.”
Moving to Waikato
The right section came up in 2016 and the young family stayed with Hannah’s mother while they set up their business on two acres in Te Mata.
“The plan was always to grow the business from the original 16 hives by splitting them each season and using cashflow to expand, not further investment.”
Half of their hives are in the Coromandel and half are around the Raglan area. Rory works full-time with the bees now, commuting back and forth as required. The actual honey production season is only six to eight weeks and is very climate dependent. Their first two seasons were two of the worst recorded as far as honey production goes.
“Having two sites halves the risk to the hives or honey production due to a weather event in one area. It also doubles the types of honey we can make,” says Hannah.
Hunt and Gather Bee Co produce six types of honey: Rewarewa, Kamahi, Manuka, Kanuka, a West Coast blend from the Raglan bees, and a Bush Blend from the Coromandel Bees.
They don’t extract their own honey. Rory takes the honey boxes to BeeNZ, in Katikati, where it is extracted and comes back to Hunt and Gather Bee Co all packed and labelled in cartons.
Hannah can’t speak highly enough of David and Julie Hayes of BeeNZ. “They’ve been so good to us, and they have a cutting edge, hi-tech set up, meaning we get export grade honey.”
The honey is sold locally in Raglan, in 25 stores nationwide, at Cambridge and Hamilton Farmer’s markets, and one-off summer markets.
Hunt and Gather Bee Co is now looking to supply more Kiwi retail stores, then tackle the export market.
Until the end of 2018, Hannah had continued to work two days a week as a teacher in Hamilton. While she avoids too much physical contact with the bees due to an allergy, she has put in many hours in the administration, sales and marketing side. Now she’s looking forward to being able to do this in ‘nice’ hours, rather than late into the evenings, and being able to spend more time with her children.
“Rory has a beekeeping certificate through Lincoln University and is very good at the theory and practical side. I really enjoy the business side, and love working with people, so I do more of the markets too.”
Recently Hannah was presented an NZI Rural Women New Zealand Business Awards’ Emerging Business category award at a ceremony at Parliament in Wellington. Hannah fitted the criteria of running 50 per cent of the business, and being based in and involved in a rural area.
The application included a 20-page proposal and an interview to become a finalist, so she’s really proud of her achievement. And she highly recommends the “fantastic” Rural Women NZ organisation. “They have a huge network and a lot of resources.
“It would be great to see more young, rural women getting involved with their local branch and entering their business awards. It has been a huge boost for our business.”
To find out more, see: www.huntandgatherbeeco.com