Drizzling lemon myrtle-infused honey onto my morning cereal feels blasphemous; I should instead be ceremoniously eating it directly from the spoon. It’s no secret the Sunshine Coast is home to a high calibre of producers, and meeting Leisa Sams, the woman behind Australia’s best new product, it’s evident she’s the Queen Bee.
Little worker bees ‘ladder’ up each other to reach their watering hole at the top of the hive, the cohesion in which they carry out even the simplest of tasks, it’s no surprise they’re the world’s most invaluable species.
I soon find out there are hundreds of species of bees, with the Italian subspecies of Apis mellifera (European honey bee) being the most common used to harvest table honey here in Australia, even though we have our own native bees.
As Leisa Sams of Hum Honey explains, it’s because colonising Australian native bees aren’t as productive as their European counterparts, which have evolved to endure long periods of snowfall and therefore store more resources and they have a larger flight zone.
For example, the European honey bee travels three to five kilometres from their hive to forage and produces more than 100 kilograms of honey a year, compared to the Australian native, which travels about 500m from its hive and produces one kilo of honey annually.
Leisa was about six when her dad became a hobby beekeeper, and she has sweet memories of collecting honeycomb (which also involved the occasional bee sting), but it was her involvement in a Land for Wildlife project at Peachester six years ago which saw her reintroduced to the hive.
“We took our stock off the waterway and revegetated the land and for the first time it reconnected a natural waterway through to the Stanley River,” she says.
“Our legacy will be that it’s the first time in 100 years that whole corridor has been connected.
“We see loads of wildlife and that’s why we started beekeeping, because we were thinking about what types of trees to plant when a council officer gave us a list and suggested we think about pollination and then I thought about getting a beehive.”
Leisa now has 160 full depth hives and is in the process of splitting them to create nucleus hives and increase the number to 300 by the end of the season in March. With their main site at Peachester and 12 other locations, all are set up on broad acreage, where there is biodiversity in the flora.
“The colony can self-raise a queen, as long as they have newly laid eggs and a good group of nurse bees to raise those eggs. From day one to day three, the eggs hatch and the colony decides how much royal jelly they feed that larvae and if it’s pure royal jelly they feed them, they develop that into a queen cell, so at any one point they can raise either a drone (male) or a worker bee (female),” she says.
“That’s how you can start a hive, as long as you have a small subset of bees and the right frame that has a lot of eggs and larvae at different stages, they raise a queen themselves.”
Because the queen emits pheromones to help the colony communicate, they recognise when they’re queenless and work on raising another. But it’s not just beekeepers who split hives, it’s also a natural part of their evolution.
“There are many reasons – it could be weather, space within the hive, or resources; where there’s an abundance of pollen and nectar available. The hive will raise swarm cells and a scout bee finds a new location and the queen will slim down so she can fly. She’ll take part of the existing colony and the rest of the colony will have a queen cell and lots of eggs that the original queen has left, so the colony keeps splitting and continuing on,” she says.
With disease, interference from beekeepers and foraging on insecticide being the three main reasons colonies die, Leisa says they choose to keep their hives stationary (compared to migratory beekeepers who move their hives to chase the honey flows), and make sure they’re not near sprayed crops.
“For organic certification you have to prove that the bees aren’t within 5km of any type of contaminate, which is pretty tough to do. We’re not certified organic, but we follow every other element of the organic standards in Australia for beekeeping, such as not using any chemicals on the hive. We don’t paint inside our hives and do a blend of natural beekeeping as well, it’s all about keeping the bees in real wood and free of diseases, which can become a biosecurity hazard,” she says.
Having worked in veterinary science for 12 years, and her husband studying agriculture, they both have heart in that space and are focused on the biology of beekeeping and farming – the physical production of a commercial product only consumes 10 per cent of Leisa’s time.
As Leisa doesn’t heat the honey or microfilter it, she just takes out the wax, she says the end result is a celebration of the tastes of the season, including eucalyptus, paperbark and melaleuca forest.
“Bees have two stomachs, one for their own resources and a honey stomach. When they go out and forage on the flowers, they’re drawing up the nectar and that mixes with their enzymes and they then transfer it at the hive, usually to another bee, and those enzymes work with the nectar glucose and fructose molecules – and every flower is different, therefore the flavours are really different,” she says.
“The bees put that nectar into a honey cell in the frame and dehydrate it (nectar is over 80 per cent water content) by fanning it and using the warmth of the hive to bring it to under 20 per cent. Those enzymes are unique, that’s why honey is such a unique compound, it’s not another plant syrup.
“It ripens and the bees will cap it with wax and then we have infinite shelf life with cold extracted honey and honeycomb. There have been articles where they’re finding viable honey in the Egyptian tombs.”
While the cold extracted pure raw honey is delicious in its own right, Leisa has experimented with cold infusion, collaborating with other local producers, and the end result is award-winning.
At Fine Foods in Melbourne, Hum Honey beat 400 other products to win Best New Australian Made product for her range of five new flavours – chilli, finger lime, black garlic, turmeric and rose petal.
A week later Hum Honey won champion regional food (other) product at the Sydney Royal Fine Food Show for the lemon myrtle cold fusion which also won gold in the regional food class, Australian lavender and cinnamon quill each won silver and the organic Australian ginger won bronze.
With plans to open the farm to the public so you too can experience life as a beekeeper (complete with the suit of course), and collaborations already in place to introduce even more delicious flavours to her range, Leisa sure is going to be one busy bee.
Originally published in Profile Magazine
Photo: Bliss Photography by Leah