Beekeeper - Darcy Callan

Wednesday, September 12, 2012



It’s the first week of spring and NSW’s Central Tablelands are marked by pockets of blazing yellow and strips of emerald green. Canola, wheat, barley lucerne and pasture crops are beginning to stir and shoot upwards with the warmer weather.

This is the time for bees to get busy. 

Cudal-based beekeeper Darcy Callan moved his 200 hives to one of the area’s biggest canola farms just last week. Darcy (66), who has sustained up to 400 stings in just one day, is pretty pragmatic about this side of his profession, “a bee sting might hurt for a few minutes but it won’t kill you. Besides, the more stings you get the more your immunity builds.”


A few minutes? One might argue that a sting, particularly a few stings to the face, can last a day or two but that’s a story for another day.

 Visiting Darcy and his bees is a fascinating if somewhat painful experience. And this time of year, Darcy explains, is about as busy as it gets. “The fields are full of pollen and there’s loads of honey coming in every day,” he says. Right now, Darcy’s worker bees are bringing in honey around the clock. Depositing their haul in the honeycomb where it is matured overnight and then sealed with a wax cap,“I need to be constantly emptying the combs or they’ll fill up too quickly - that’s when the bees will swarm and take off."

Every day during Spring, Darcy drives the three kilometres from home to hives. His truck carries empty boxes and a small forklift. When he arrives, Darcy pulls on protective clothing, stuffs an old smoker with hay, sets it alight and heads into the fray.



Working up to 14 hours a day at the moment, Darcy's days are filled with harvesting, extracting and bottling honey before travelling to farmer's markets in Sydney most weekends to sell their product. It’s non-stop.

Darcy came to beekeeping rather late in his working life. He had spent many years driving trucks and then worked as a community worker before being lured into the secret life of bees via a neighbour. “We were living in Orange at the time and our neighbour was keeping bees,” Darcy says, “I would watch and help him care for the hives. Gradually I built up my own and learnt the business as I went.”

“These days there are TAFE courses for people wanting to get into beekeeping. But when I started 14 years ago you really just learnt on the job. I’m still learning,” Darcy says, “if you are listening, every day there’s something to learn.” Particularly in apiary. The hive structure is incredibly sophisticated, each Queen is unique and each hive behaves differently.



“Days like today I shouldn’t get too many stings, if any,” he says. It’s a bright spring day and most of the bees are out working, but overcast days are the worst. Most of the bees will be at the hive and they can get pretty protective when you want to swap their boxes.”

Darcy’s bees will stay in this canola field for three weeks before he drives them 20 minutes to a cherry orchard near Cargo. He will receive a pollination fee to keep them here for up to a month before returning the bees to Cudal where they’ll ‘work’ a paddock full of Paterson's Curse (we won’t say whose) and yellow box. Here they’ll stay until after Christmas and then it’s a matter of chasing the flowers and eucalpytus blossoms until winter. “The bigger beekeepers keep their hives going all year round,” Darcy says, “they drive further and further west to find yellowbox and wildflowers for their bees but I just can’t justify the costs and time away so the bees and I have a break over winter.” At the end of May he reduces his hives down to just one box and they all stay home until late August.


Darcy’s 200 hives produce about 1500 litres of honey a year, impressive when you consider that it takes 300 bees about three weeks to gather 450g of honey.

When asked about the theory that the world’s bee population (managed and wild) is under threat from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), Darcy is philosophical. “CCD has been an issue as long as beekeeping has been a profession,” he says, “it’s part of the natural cycle. Every year we can loose up to 10% of our hives, somethimes more sometimes less.” But what he will say is that a world without bees would last only five years. “All I know is that we need to be careful of our bees and be  absolutely spot on with our biosecurity.”


To Darcy, the aging population of beekeepers is just as pressing an issue. “Without beekeepers you don’t have a honey industry and without the honey industry you don’t have bees to pollinate orchards and other plants and trees.” He guesses that the average age for beekeepers in Australia would be 60 and worries there aren’t enough incentives to draw more young people into this sector of Australian farming. The work is hard, the hours are long and it can be expensive to get set up, Darcy says, “but, working with bees is gives you a daily glimpse into one of the most interesting social structures in nature. It’s never boring.”




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