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Simple Te Mata honey shed a real hive of ethical industry

They bought their first hives only two years ago but already the couple who started Hunt & Gather Bee Co. at Te Mata say they can hardly keep up with the demand for their jars of sweet kamahi, rewarewa and bush blend honeys.

“It’s starting to work,” a buzzing Hannah O’Brien told the Chronicle of their thriving venture. “It’s really exciting.”

Husband Rory – aka the chief beekeeper – agrees, saying early feedback from customers has been  “great … phenomenal”.

The pair can be found most days hard at work, if not busy as bees, on their Te Papatapu Road property just beyond the turnoff to Bridal Veil Falls. Along with their children, five-year-old Kieran and two-year-old Alice, they’re living for now in a tiny part of their basic year-old honey shed.

Rory and Hannah admit it was a risk a couple of years back to sell their rental house in Te Aroha so they could buy their couple of acres at Te Mata along with the first 24 of the 150-odd beehives they now have scattered around the Raglan district and the Coromandel.

They were living at the time in Tairua, where Rory was working for a small-scale commercial beekeeper after earlier stints on dairy farms in the Waikato.

The pair say they’d increasingly felt passionate about going it alone and trying out their own beekeeping lifestyle. They liked being part of an industry that had a more positive impact on the environment and on family life.

The Raglan district was a logical location to pursue their dream because Hannah’s mother, Fiona McNabb, had transferred here from Tairua years previously when her son Sean Peggs – Hannah’s brother – entered Raglan Surf Academy.

While the first year’s focus was to grow hive numbers, this latest year the emphasis has switched to honey production.

All up the couple’s hives are home to about 60,000 bees when the season’s in full swing.  Rory and Hannah joke they can now look forward to having hundreds of thousands of new family members each year.

But it hasn’t all been happy families. The now 30-somethings did get into a sticky situation early on, when Hannah was eight months’ pregnant with Alice. Stung by a bee, Hannah went into anaphylactic shock and within half an hour was on the way to hospital in an ambulance. “I was in a very bad way.”

On recovery, she was told to carry an EpiPen and to stay away from bees – a tall order when, as Hannah observes, “we had actually just invested every bit of money we had (in beehives)”.

Although not keen to be stung again, Hannah hasn’t let it hold her back and simply takes care around bees. Kieran has his own bee suit and is right in there beekeeping with his dad while Alice “picks up bees all the time” and occasionally gets stung.

Rory not only does the hands-on beekeeping but also builds the boxes – each with 10 removable frames – that get stacked six storeys high as each bee colony continues to grow. Unlike most beekeepers he builds from scratch, using no plastics so it’s “quite labour-intensive”.

Running an ethical, sustainable business is an important part of the Hunt & Gather ethos. It’s something Hannah and Rory put at the forefront of their decision-making.

“We use wooden hives, we get our honey packaged in glass jars and we print our labels on paper,” says Hannah. “We’re trying to leave the world a better place for our kids.”

They also make the most of what their bees can offer, so as well as collecting honey there are other products like reusable beeswax food wraps and beeswax boot polish to make. The unassuming honey house is frequently a hive of industry.

The couple sell their own honey at markets around the Waikato, and will set up for the first time at Raglan’s monthly creative market on Sunday. “We really want to bring a good-quality, locally produced product to the locals,” says Rory.

And they’ll be on site with Xero – their cloud-based software accounting system – at the Mystery Creek Fieldays next week, giving away coffees and jars of honey.   

Rory says Xero is “fantastic, so easy to use”. Hannah adds it’s made a big difference now the business is growing, keeping paperwork to a minimum.

Edith Symes