Harvesting Leatherwood Honey in Tasmania

Posted on: 07 Jul 2017

Leatherwood honey, a Tasmanian icon (beekeeping in the antipodes).

Where do you find Leatherwood Honey?

Any observation of beekeeping in Tasmania is synonymous with the unique honey produced here called Leatherwood, a name derived from the “leathery” texture of the wood. This species forms part of the genus Eucryphia of which there are seven sub-species distributed in Australia (5) and Chile (2). Tasmania itself has two subspecies, the predominant lucida from which the vast majority of honey is produced and the montane variety milliganii. The latter occurs at altitudes greater then 1000m. From the distribution of the Eucryphia we can interpret the evidence to prove the theory of “continental drift”, where once there was a great southern continent called Gondwanaland that was to break up and its pieces drift northward. The principal pieces outside of Antarctica are Australia, South Africa, South America and India (which collided with the northern continent Pangia, the impact created the Himalayas). The remaining three subspecies on the Australian mainland are now reduced to tiny remnant communities occurring high in the Great Dividing Range of the south eastern part of the country and produce no significant crops of honey for beekeepers. In Chile the cordifolia produces good crops (known locally as Ulmo) for their beekeepers.

The Leatherwood Honey in Tasmania occurs only on the western side of the island in the rugged and inhospitable mountains where it forms part of the canopy of the cool temperate rainforest. The island lies in the path of the “Roaring Forties”, the circum polar winds that constantly rule the weather – from the west. These winds carry moisture laden clouds in and generate rain fall in the order of 80-100 inches per annum. The 42 parallel bisects Tasmania, and it is of interest to note that if you view the globe from this perspective that we share this latitude with only New Zealand and Chile/Patagonia. The distinct lack of human population and therefore industry mean that unlike so much of the rest of the world we lack the pollution phenomena; hence our claims to “clean green” produce (one of the benefits of isolation aside from the fishing!).

The Leatherwood Tree

The Leatherwood tree itself attains 30 meters in height (100 feet) but usually around 15 meters (50 feet). It blooms annually in mid to late summer with a profusion of flowers, so dense that at times it appears as though a veil has been thrown over the forest, filling the air with its spicy aroma. It’s almost as though the forest “runs” with the ephemeral sweetness; a distillate of nature, for these brief weeks.

The bee colonies are transported into the region from late December through until late January, the distribution due to the influence of altitude where the warmer sea level trees are the first to come into bloom and then gradually progress up the mountain sides as the season progresses. It is possible to extend the crop utilising this geographical feature, moving the hives further up as the season progresses. In any particular zone the typical flowering period is six (6) weeks long.

Managing and Harvesting Leatherwood Honey Hives

The most common management regimes these days aim to make the most of the Leatherwood honey crop which typically represents 60-70% of the annual hive production. To achieve the maximum crop it is vital to have very strong colonies, by this we mean something like 16-24 Langstroth frames of brood balanced with a strong population of foraging bees at the outset. Colonies of this size usually are furnished with 5 or 6 supers, making the hives quite tall. When the weather conditions are favourable the colonies fill these supers within two weeks, necessitating a quick turn-around time of emptying the filled supers if the maximum crop is to be achieved. In our operation it usually takes two weeks to harvest the pre-Leatherwood crop and move the colonies from the central and eastern side of the island to the west coast (a 250 km trip), so by the time we have finished the last hives and moved them it is time to start emptying the first load moved to the lower altitude apiaries and so on through to the last load and then back to the beginning again. This cycle is repeated usually twice and some years three times so that it is common, indeed average, to product 100kg per colony. As an example of what can be achieved, last season, which was a very good one, we were able to produce 200kg from a portion of the hives.

Our Unique Leatherwood Honey Process

When one considers the logistics of managing 1,500 colonies through this level of production you can probably imagine the amount of work associated and the necessity for good production systems. Most of the larger scale professional apiarists employ a palletised system, usually 4 hives per pallet and loaded with various types of machines from forklifts to hydraulic truck mounted cranes (in our case). Once the harvest begins we keep a team of beekeepers camped out in the forest stripping and stacking full supers onto special pallets and bee proofing them against robbing until a truck can collect and return them to the extracting facility, the truck returns with the previously extracted supers and deposits them in the next apiary to be stripped etc etc.

The majority of Tasmania’s 16,000 colonies are migrated to the Leatherwood forests which in turn produce around 1,000 tonnes of honey

Bee Hive/Beekeeper Statistics

Apiary size                 Hive Nos         Beekeepers

<20                              808                     164

20-99                           1,560                  49

100-199                       2,410                  18

200-999                       5,255                  14

>1000                          8,440                    5

The Beekeeping Year

Typically, the beekeeping year begins in late August and early September (March equivalent) where the over-wintered hives are checked for stores and on the better days floors are cleaned and some other housekeeping duties carried out. Feeding with sugar syrup is common practice from this time through until November depending upon the region and the availability of nectar.

Colonies are requeened with caged over-wintered queens from mid September and from October onwards, with new spring raised queens imported from the northern mainland states (New South Wales and Queensland). Most commercial operators breed a significant proportion of their own queens, and Italian strains predominate.

Pollination is developing as an important part of the beekeeping economy. Traditionally apples and pome fruits were grow, however the range is being extended in more recent times with the development of more intensive fruit and seed cropping. Cherries are a significant “new” crop produced for the Japanese market, they are grown under nets to protect them from birds and hail stones and this factor makes them difficult from the bees and beekeepers point of view as significant damage is done to their wings as they try to fly “through” the net to fetch water and visit other flowers in the vicinity. A relatively recent development is the growing of Canola both as a “broad acre” oil seed rotational crop and as seed generation crop.

The Way Forward For Leatherwood Honey

By way of rounding off this article on Tasmanian beekeeping it is a sorry necessity to mention that our wonderful Leatherwood trees and the forest they occur in have sustained significant destruction across their range from the logging industry. While Leatherwood is not the target species they are felled as “by-catch” and either turned into wood fibre or simply burned as part of the industrial forestry silvicultural seed bed preparation for the planting of hardwoods. The islands peak industry body, the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association was formed 64 years ago precisely for and out of concern beekeepers had at the loss of Leatherwood trees and to lobby our government for their protection. The unfortunate reality of the situation was that inspite of the sustained effort on the part of the beekeeping community very little was achieved until recently, but this very much at the “eleventh hour”. This perhaps is not as surprising as the timber harvesting industry is enormously powerful both economically and of course politically, so it has been very much a David and Goliath situation except that the Tasmanian beekeepers lacked a good catapult!

Thankfully significant areas of the Island’s remnant ancient forests have been protected in various reserves, National Parks and World Heritage Areas and it is from these that the future production of the famous Leatherwood honey will be maintained.


The article was written by Bee Craft.

Categories: Honey, Tasmanian Honey Company

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