“Anyone who has grown up in a primary production family feels very connected and privileged to understand what is ultimately a very basic link between nature, food and life. When you’ve spent your entire childhood and adulthood understanding this link and recognising its slow deterioration, you begin to wonder what your purpose in life really is…”
Anyone who has visited the north-east Victorian town of Beechworth will appreciate its indelible link to gold. Discovered in the mid 1800s, gold helped lay the foundations for what is now one of the state’s most picturesque and tourist-friendly destinations. Real gold might have dried up long ago (although there’s still plenty of gold panning going on, just in case…), but it’s the liquid gold that is now helping keep Beechworth on the map.
In the 1880s Jodie Goldsworthy’s great grandfather joined the rush for gold. He didn’t fare all that well, and instead decided to stay in the ‘Beechy’ area and start farming honey. Four generations later and Jodie along with her husband Steven, after going it alone with their own hives and establishing the business, have turned Beechworth Honey into the second largest packer of honey in Australia.
I remember some years ago hearing Jodie interviewed live on ABC radio encouraging Australians to minimise their consumption of honey… Sorry, what? Isn’t the message usually the other way around? Buy! Buy! Buy!
“There is more to life than putting honey in a jar and selling it. This is way more important.”
It’s here that the story starts to get very interesting. Those who like to go beyond the label to understand more about the food they consume will recognise in that ABC anecdote a core value that is inherent in so many Australian farmers and primary producers – this is not just about making a buck. There’s a much bigger picture at stake.
We caught up with Jodie to find out more about honey, honeybees (there are more than 20,000 types of bees in the world – we’re focusing here on honeybees) and how their fate is intertwined with our own.
If we go down, we’re taking you with us.
Has anyone seen that graffiti image do the rounds on social media? It’s a wall mural of a couple of giant sized honeybees, and the message is sobering.
So why are these little pocket rockets essentially the masters of our destiny? It all comes down to pollination. Honeybees need protein from pollen and carbohydrates from nectar, and without these sources they’re unable to get about their business making honey. As they buzz around they collect pollen from the male anthers of one flower, and deposit it into the female ovaries of another flower.
This is how the flower sets a seed, which eventually turns into fruit. This process is called cross-pollination because it relies on the bees spreading pollen between flowers from the same species. Although some flowers can self-pollinate, it’s the cross-pollination that helps strengthen the plant so it can fight disease and produce quality fruit.
Two-thirds of the food we eat is the result of honeybee cross-pollination. Without bees we face a flowerless landscape. Without flowers we face a dysfunctional food system.
“Bees face complex, cumulative and inter-related threats.”
Anyone interested in quickly understanding why bees are under threat and just how extensively this could impact humankind need look no further than the Ted Talk, “Why Bees are Disappearing”, an informative presentation by American entomologist Marla Spivak. Spend 15 minutes watching this and you’re guaranteed to be fascinated by these incredible creatures, who even have their own social healthcare policy!
Bees have been thriving for 50-million years. 50-million! But in the last decade, colonies have began to die en masse the world around… Why? To sum things up succinctly the myriad challenges and threats they face include:
Decreasing diversity and availability of flora. As the world demands more volumes of food, traditional agricultural processes have given way to more efficient, faster methods and native countryside has been cultivated. This in turn has seen a reduction in naturally occurring wild flowers
Pesticides and chemicals used for some primary production can negatively impact bees
Diseases and pests, including the tiny mite, varroa, which lives on the honeybee and compromises the colony’s reproduction and viral defences
Decline in commercial bee keepers
“I looked around and I realised – very few people understand honeybees and honey as fundamentally as my family and me. This heritage and knowledge, as well as the Beechworth Honey businesss, has provided me with a platform to speak up.”
And speak up she has. Jodie is a Director of the Wheen Bee Foundation, a non-Government organisation that aims to raise awareness of the issues threatening bees. Jodie will also commence as President of the Apimondia Oceania Commission in September, after beginning the role “in training” in early 2014. Apimondia is the peak international beekeeping and honey scientific body worldwide. Further, any visitor to Beechworth can now not only enjoy the Beechworth Honey Experience honey shop with free educational tour, but just down the street the business has established its second educational centre in town, Beechworth Honey Discovery, which helps to educate the public and highlight the important role honeybees play in the pollination of our food. There’s a café component to the discovery centre, and the “Bee Inspired Menu” features a “Bee Rating Calculator”, which is used to calculate an overall Bee Rating (out of 5) for each dish on the menu (based on Jodie’s experience and the scientific research that has been undertaken which confirms the importance of honeybees in the pollination of each ingredient used in the dish).
There is also a Bee Garden with educational signage against each plant describing the pollination role of honeybees, as well as a “Year in the Life of Our Beekeeper”, and live beehive display.
“There are some simple ways we can all be honeybee-friendly.”
Australia needs a healthy and viable honeybee sector, and this is only going to come about if Australian consumers support Australian honey. That means choosing between an often inferior but cheaper imported honey, and a slightly higher priced local honey. But it’s that consumer choice that has the power to actually keep honeybees in business here.
From a different perspective, people can keep bees in mind when they’re planning their gardens. Using the same flowers or plants or shrubs might make a garden look uniformed and styled, but it’s not going to get bees buzzing with excitement. Flora that flowers at different times throughout the year and a garden with a rich diversity of pollens and nectar is like paradise for a happy and healthy honeybee.
But all this chatting with Jodie gives one a bit of a sweet tooth, making it hard not to talk food.
“My great aunty’s honey sponge roll is my all-time favourite honey recipe.”
Recipe aside, we ask Jodie if she has a favourite honey, but she’s fairly diplomatic in saying that she loves to swap and change, ultimately going for the sweeter honeys rather than the stronger ones. She drops a hint that Beechworth Honey Hill Gum might be up there on the top of the list, most of the time….