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Beekeeper Spotlight: John Thornton of Garden Route Honey Producers

South Africa’s beekeeping industry is full of hardworking people working day and night to deliver beekeeping services like honey production, pollination, queen rearing, and more. In this new column, we’ll be introducing you to some of the very special people we’ve had the honour to meet, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the many different roles beekeepers have to play.

Today, we’re chatting with John Thornton, owner of Garden Route Honey Producers in Port Elizabeth!

John, tell us a bit about how you got into beekeeping.

“I grew up on a smallholding in Port Elizabeth, so I developed my love for agriculture at a young age. At 10 years old, I attended the local agricultural show and came across the local beekeepers’ association. A beekeeper by the name of Des Ekers took me under his wing and I spent my weekends building hives, doing bee removals and working swarms in the Sunday’s River Valley with him. By age 12, I had 9 swarms of my own and was selling honey to the local shop for R5 a bottle.

After completing my B.Sc in Agri and Masters in Animal Nutrition, I moved overseas to work in animal nutrition in the UK, Ireland, and the USA. While in the UK, I joined the British Beekeepers Association and started attending talks and courses, and at the same time I started Garden Route Honey Producers back here in South Africa. But it was my time in the USA that really kickstarted my full-time career in beekeeping. I started with one hive in the suburb of Buckhead, Atlanta and within 12 months, I was up to 40 swarms.

When we moved back to South Africa in 2020, we built up Garden Route Honey Producers into a rapidly growing business, focusing on replicating swarms and selling five-frame nucleus colonies. We currently run 700 swarms and in 2022, we expect to sell about 2 000 five-frame nucleus colonies.”

Can you explain the process of replicating swarms? Specifically, what is queen rearing and what’s a nucleus colony?

“In the natural world, the ability to produce more honeybee colonies is dependent on the production of a queen. Every swarm needs a queen. Queen rearing is a process where we mimic what bees do in nature to produce queens at a more rapid rate, so we can produce more swarms faster.

In nature, bees in a hive feed a particular larvae a substance called “royal jelly” to transform it into a queen (the only difference between a queen and a worker bee is the nutrition they receive as a larvae; they are genetically the same egg). We mimic that process by encouraging the bees to feed specific larvae royal jelly, and then for each of those new queens created, we create small colonies for them by splitting larger ones. We sell these small, new colonies (“nucleus colonies”) to beekeepers, and with proper care they’ll soon develop into a large, strong colony.”

How are you looking after your bees every day?

“Our business ethos is that we look after our bees and they look after us. Taking care of our bees is good for the bees, which is important on its own, but it’s also good for business which is good for us. How we do that is by providing high quality hives (a dry and warm hive makes for a happy bee), by giving them high-nutrition food, and when we handle them, we do it in a way that limits stress on them; for example, we use trucks with air suspension to ensure a smooth ride when transporting hives, and we take extra precautions when lifting them in and out of the truck. It all counts.

I think the reason we’ve been successful is because we’re always trying to learn how to better care for our bees. We understand basic bee biology, but we’re always looking to improve our understanding so we can produce even healthier hives.”

What can the everyday South African do to help the bees?

We are all consumers and we have power when we buy. The market is flooded with fake honey. The retail industry allows it (disgracefully), but as consumers, we should not. Read the honey labels carefully before you buy and double check the origin of the honey. If it has anything other than South African sources, don't buy it, because likely it’s been irradiated and includes unhealthy additives, both of which destroy all the benefits of raw honey.

Another way to help is to plant bee-loving plants in your garden. You won't believe the amount of beautiful plants available that are good for bees. My family just added perennial basil to our garden–it flowers for a long time and the bees just love it.

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