This region of the country is sometimes referred to as the Land of Milk and Honey, justifiably, it would seem, at least as far as honey is concerned. Bee master, Gys Boonzaaier of Kleinmond has had an intimate relationship with bees for the past 55 years, so he should know, and with more than 600 of his hives spread across the Overberg, there is certainly no shortage of these busy little workers.
Gys’s love affair with bees started when he was a child living in Kleinmond. One day, his father, the Hermanus Chief Prosecutor, apparently quite randomly, announced that beekeeping sounded like a good hobby to pursue, not only for himself, but also for his daughter and three sons. This sudden proposal was greeted with minimum enthusiasm by most of the children, especially as it was likely to result in pain.
Nevertheless, under the tutelage of two local bee masters, the Condon brothers, they headed for the quarry just outside of town (now the Kleinmond golf course), where their first task was to capture a swarm of wild bees. As they suspected, by the time they arrived home, they all sported an array of painful bee stings.
Their mother was dragged into the enterprise with a request to come up with some kind of protection for their heads, which she did by the creative use of whatever materials she had to hand, including mosquito window netting. Eventually, only two of the brothers and their father persevered with the hobby, soaking up all they could learn from the Condon brothers, including making their own hives. As Gys says, he couldn’t have had better mentors. He picked up a book on bee-keeping for the first time last year and found that he was able to learn nothing new, except the science behind the art.
After school, Gys joined the police force and was posted to Johannesburg, but he hated the gut-wrenching violence he encountered every day and when his father fell ill, he gratefully returned to Kleinmond and the bees he had grown to love and respect. He bought the 50 or 60 hives his dad still maintained and set himself up for business (by that time all his siblings had dropped the imposed hobby).
He had already learnt how to capture bees from all kinds of sites: from old, abandoned hives, to holes in the mountain, to rubbish dumps and private properties; to divide the swarm if it was too large and transfer them to permanent hives somewhere in the fynbos. “I have never stopped learning from the bees,” he muses. “They are wonderful creatures. When I am feeling down, I head for my hives and afterwards I feel much better.
“Did you know, for example, that if you divide a swarm, the queen bee accompanies the one half to its new hive, and then the other section creates its own queen by feeding queen jelly to one of the worker bees? People also sometimes wonder why we use smoke when we capture bees – it’s to calm them down. But I must tell you every swarm has its own personality and when I come across an aggressive swarm, I’m very pleased, because aggressive bees are happy bees.”
And so, over the years, Gys‘s hives have multiplied, from Grabouw to Bot River and Kleinmond, and making the boxes, maintaining them and harvesting the honey is more than a full-time job. In addition, for the past 55 years, his bees have been providing a pollination service for the same five fruit farmers in the Grabouw district, which he describes as very stressful.
“The pollination has to take place at exactly the right time, so if I’m lucky I get two days’ notice to transport the hives there; sometimes it’s no more than overnight. And then the same thing happens when they have to be collected, because as soon as pollination has taken place, the farmer wants to start spraying.”
Gys underlines the important role bees play in agriculture: “No bees, no fruit or vegetables in four years’ time.”
A while back in China when their bees had all but disappeared, farmers were obliged to pollinate their crops by hand. Fortunately, hereabouts, while bee numbers may fluctuate from year to year and therefore, also honey production, there is a healthy population. “Of course,” he adds, “events like the wild fires we have from time to time have an adverse effect on numbers and it takes a while for them to recover.” His bees produce mainly fynbos honey, but during low flowering periods, he moves them to where there are eucalyptus trees.
Unfortunately, he says, a lot of fake honey is sold in this country; some of it no better than syrup. It is produced locally and also imported from countries like Pakistan, India, China and Argentina – check the label. The latter is considered third grade honey, whilst the second grade honey produced in this country is often a blend of sub-standard canola, and premium fynbos or eucalyptus.
The answer, says Gys, is to trust your bee-keeper and to know where the honey is sourced. Certified bee-keepers are registered with SABIO (South African Bee Industry Organisation), administered by the Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.
Gys is in partnership with his son – he manages the bee farming, with the help of only one assistant, taught by him from scratch, while his son handles the marketing and sales, under the Bee Master label. Depending on the weather and other variables, they produce anything from one ton to four, harvesting two or three times a year.
“I’m an optimist you know, so it’s all about faith and hard work; and we always make certain enough honey is left for the bees themselves and for the local honey badgers. I am worried, though, that there is growing criminal activity in this area: honey is being stolen for traditional beer making and the hives are destroyed.”
He is emphatic about the fact that bees are wild creatures and dangerous. They should be treated with caution and respect. “Although, many people build up immunity over years,” he explains. “One bee sting can kill you, and very fast. I am always aware that I could die tomorrow, even though I have been working with them for so many years. You have a window of only about 20 minutes, so if you’re stung, get to a doctor as soon as possible for an antihistamine and adrenalin injection – all the other remedies you’ve heard about are old wives’ tales.”
For further information, call Gys on 083 458 0994.