As a child, Jody Mitchell was petrified of bees. “I used to have bad reactions – I’d throw up and pass out. It sounds ridiculous as now I’m the biggest bee nut there is.”
Not only is she a bee nut, but her and husband Ralph own and run one of New Zealand’s most successful beekeeping businesses from the Kaimai Ranges in the Western Bay of Plenty.
The couple’s passion has led them to becoming the overall supreme NZ honey winners for two consecutive years and the most-awarded honey company in Aotearoa.
Jody is used to the early mornings in the Kaimais – she grew up there, and brought her husband home from Cornwall in the UK to raise their family in the hills overlooking the Bay of Plenty.
“I was adamant I was going to have my children here, and that they’d go to Kaimai School like I did,” says Jody, who met Ralph after completing an agriculture exchange to Norway at age 19. They’ve now clocked up 30 years together.
“Ralph was doing the same exchange to NZ,” says Jody. “I was the area supervisor and met him on his first day in NZ. He came up, introduced himself, and we’ve been together ever since.”
After milking cows and driving tractors in Canada, they moved to Cornwall for four years before returning home to go dairy farming, and eventually established Kaimai Range Honey.
Starting with 300 hives, they now have 2000-hives, have won the NBA Quintessential Honey of NZ award in 2009, and Overall Supreme Honey of NZ Award in 2017 and 2018.
“We’re continuing a family tradition of beekeeping in the Kaimais since the 1920s, with our daughters Tamara and Zoe actively involved, and Tamara’s fiancé Daniel too,” says Jody.
The family tradition began after Jody’s grandmother’s brother contracted tuberculosis at age 10. “He wasn’t allowed to go to school so they bought him a beehive and he went nuts on bees.
“He was one of the earliest beekeepers in the Kaimai Range, and started Te Poi Apiaries. His son, Don Edwards, and my dad started beekeeping too.”
Arriving back in NZ with Ralph, Jody, a commercial sign writer, says the plan was to go dairy farming “and ultimately own our own farm”. Then tragedy struck.
“Ralph got hit by a truck and trailer on the Kaimai Range. He broke his back and neck and pretty well everything except his left arm and leg.”
Jody had to decide whether to turn Ralph’s life support off. “I said: ‘He’s not going to die’. The medical staff planned to jump start him after I turned it off.”
She watched as her husband jumped back into life by himself without any medical intervention.
Due to sign a 50/50 sharemilking contract one day after the accident – instead Jody finished the season’s milking in Morrinsville and nursed Ralph before they moved back to the Kaimai family farm.
“We saw a log house kit for sale for $24,000 and decided to build a house while Ralph was recuperating.”
Ralph started working for a beekeeper down the road, and Jody decided it was time she stopped being scared of bees. “That’s about 20 years ago; we’ve had our own company about 15 years now.”
The Mitchells specialises in Manuka and specialty honey production throughout the North Island and provide kiwifruit pollination services locally.
Their honeys have placed in the top three NZ Overall Honey Award winners every year since 2009. And they’ve either won or placed second for the Commercial Mono Floral Awards.
In 2018 their Rewarewa honey won best honey from nine regions. In 2019 the family gained 12 awards; this year they received an Outstanding Food Producer Award.
“We specialise in organically-produced raw Manuka honey from Taranaki and the Central Plateau, along with local specialty honeys from the Kaimai Range and Waikato.”
Their range includes Waikato Pasture Honey, Manuka, Rewarewa, Tawari, Kaimai Special and Blackberry. Around Tauranga, they provide their much-needed kiwifruit pollination service only to ‘bee friendly’ orchardists.
Daughters Tamara, 24, and Zoe, 20, work in the family business. Zoe, studying for a nursing degree, is part-time while Tamara has developed a small business ‘Oh Wax NZ’, using beeswax to make handcrafted soaps, candles and balms.
Last June Ralph and Jody went to Italy for the Honey Sensory Analysis course, with Jody working towards becoming a qualified world honey judge.
“This was a fantastic experience but very challenging, having to learn and do blind tastings on 22 new honeys,” says Jody. “I plan on doing the next stage of the training hopefully in 2021, where I must be able to identify 42 different honeys.”
Jody says recent years have been difficult for NZ beekeepers with relentless compliance cost increases, difficulty selling bulk honey and overcrowding of resources due to hive and beekeeper numbers exploding nationally.
“There used to always be around 2000 beekeepers – now there’s 10,000, and hive numbers have more than tripled.
“We plan to be in this for the long-haul, so this coming season we’ll downsize by one-third to make the business more efficient. We’re getting a bit older so it’s time to let the next generation step up. And so, Tamara and Daniel will run half the beehives.”
Jody reckons NZ produces some of the world’s best antibiotic-free honey, so in an effort to promote and add value to NZ’s other specialty honeys, she plans to enter their Rewarewa and Tawari honeys into the 2021 World Beekeeping Awards in Russia. “I’m trying to get people thinking more about all of our amazing native honeys, not just manuka.”
Selling their premium export honeys and bee products at Tauranga’s Farmer’s Market and online, we asked: What’s the secret to creating NZ’s top honey?
“The not-so-secret secret is hygiene, timing and passion. Look after the bees and they will look after you.”