Kitchen Tips

How the family behind Earthbound Honey turned their beekeeping passion into a business

Bees mean business at Earthbound Honey, a raw, natural honey company based in West Auckland. NADIA magazine went to meet the family behind the brand.

By Fiona Ralph
In Bethells there are a lot of bees. Happy bees, to be precise. They're the hard-working creatures behind Earthbound, a range of honey, honeygars (honey vinegars), candles and skin products produced in West Auckland's Bethells Valley.
The small family business, owned by Terry and Karlene Shaw-Toomey, is underpinned by a love of bees and a commitment to natural beekeeping principles. A lot of care goes into each jar of their raw, hand-harvested honey. Their bees are cared for naturally, with honey harvested from hives in the least disruptive way possible. They are also left with enough honey for winter, a time when they don't produce any. (Most commercial operators strip honey from the hives, leaving bees to drink sugar water over winter.) This, and the fact that the bees feed on pesticide-free native flowers in the beautiful valley and coastal surrounds of Terry and Karlene's home, means Earthbound bees are healthier and happier, or so Karlene believes. "We hope they're happy – they make us happy," she laughs.
Suited up Terry and Karlene Shaw-Toomey with son Graydon in the coastal pohutukawa grove where some of their hives are housed.
The Shaw-Toomeys started Earthbound in 2006 after a leg injury left Terry unable to continue his work in the print industry. After eight years as a hobbyist beekeeper, it was an easy decision to swap his long commute for a work-from-home, passion-powered lifestyle. Although starting a business has been hard, he says, they always fought to make it work. "We didn't have a back-up plan – it wasn't an option for it not to work." Eventually Karlene started "loving the bees" too, and gave up her landscaping work to join forces with Terry. The honey was sold to friends initially but is now stocked around the country. Most people become repeat customers – even those based overseas. "People track us down," says Karlene.
They are continually innovating, having also added beeswax food wrap and lip balm to their line-up. When they're not tending the hives or packing honey, Terry focuses on sales and marketing, while Karlene makes skin products and candles and looks after the finances.
The hub of the business, aside from 400 happy hives, is the commercial kitchen and packing facility in the couple's garage. Their four-hectare property – set in native bush and dotted with trucks, dogs, chickens, fruit trees and vegetable gardens – is also home to Karlene's parents and, at times, the family's three grown sons.
Karlene in action at a coastal property near Auckland's Bethells Beach. The bees here forage on 300-year-old pohutukawa trees and produce Earthbound's pohutukawa honey.
Terry says they'd love to pass the business on to their children. "Where businesses becomes successful is where they're multi-generational," he says, although he also admits he "can't imagine retiring".
Neighbours are essential in the small, isolated community, and Terry and Karlene know most of theirs. It was "a crazy old guy" down the road who introduced Terry to beekeeping and gave him his first hives, while others in the community have allowed the couple to place hives on their properties. "We've been really lucky with all our neighbours," says Karlene. "They're very supportive of our business. We wouldn't have been able to do it without them." One neighbour keeps Earthbound hives on her out-of-use tennis court, which is surrounded by 300-year-old pohutukawas.
Some of their other bees feed on manuka, bush and wild flowers, with Earthbound producing honey for each variation. One of their manuka honeys has been tested and certified as having an MGO (methylglyoxal, an antibacterial compound) rating of 100+.
Terry and Karlene have consciously aimed to keep their business small, with a focus on quality over quantity and a limited number of hives. They believe industrialisation is detrimental to the New Zealand honey industry. Terry spent time at a commercial operation while learning the ropes, but opted to do things more naturally at Earthbound. He uses smoke instead of chemicals to calm bees before harvesting honey, and scrapes frames onsite so he can leave hives intact, instead of leaving bees with nowhere to go.
To minimise disruption to hives, the family avoids the use of chemicals, instead using smoke to calm the bees while the honey is harvested.
The couple are passionate about the organic nature of their work and the role bees play in the ecosystem. They are happy that more people are choosing to keep hives on their properties, but stress that they need to be cared for properly. Their advice for those wanting to give beekeeping a go is to research and test the waters before committing. Join a club or tag along with a beekeeper, or enlist somebody to manage your hives if you are short of time.
Beekeepers need to register their hives, too, and be able to recognise the signs of illness to ensure diseases are treated before they spread. It's a big commitment, but the payoffs are worth it, says Terry. Although one hazard is unavoidable: "There are no two ways about it; you're gonna get stung."
Find them at earthboundhoney.com or at the Catalina Bay Farmers' Market every Wednesday to Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday & Sunday 8:30am-2pm.

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