Geoff Matthews, a long-time Lynfield resident, started beekeeping 55 years ago as a 14-year-old boy living in Glen Eden. After reading about bees, he bought two beehives from a Glen Innes beekeeper and taught himself basic beekeeping practices.
But soon after getting underway with his new hobby, disaster struck; a hive donated to him by a local veterinarian contained an incurable American Foulbrood disease which spread to his two newly purchased hives resulting in all three hives being destroyed by Department of Agriculture apiary inspectors. Those same inspectors were so impressed with Geoff’s ability to identify the disease in all three hives that they offered him a job as a part-time apiary inspector, visiting and checking all the beehives in West Auckland from New Lynn to Taupaki. At 14, he was the youngest apiary inspector in the history of the Department of Agriculture.
Within a few weeks, Geoff was able to gain new hives and within a year had built up his hive numbers to 20, often hiring out his hives to orchardists in Oratia for pollination services during the Spring blossom season.
During a sports lesson at Kelston Boys High School, Geoff’s form five class had to run for cover as a swarm of bees flew over the sports field. Geoff asked the sports teacher for permission to catch the swarm, and he followed it to the back of a sawmill in Great North Road. Once it settled on a gorse bush, Geoff was able to cut the branch with a borrowed saw. He then walked back to school with the swarm hanging off the branch. Needing to ask a school friend to take him home on the back of his motorbike, Geoff walked into his English classroom still holding the swarm, to ask the teacher to release his friend for the trip home. The teacher and most of the class were traumatised by the sight of the swarm and some made attempts to climb out of the classroom window! The teacher quickly agreed to Geoff’s request to borrow his friend and Geoff was able to drop the bees in a new hive at his home and return to school.
“Matthews, I have never forgotten you – you regularly appear in my nightmares!”
Geoff bumped into this English teacher in Queen Street several years after leaving school and asked the teacher if he remembered him. The teacher replied, “Matthews, I have never forgotten you – you regularly appear in my nightmares!”
Upon finishing his education at Kelston Boys High School Geoff seriously considered joining the Department of Agriculture as an Apiary Instructor, but this necessitated gaining an Apicultural degree from Canada which he could not do at the time due to his lack of science subjects studied at school. Instead he started working as a quantity surveyor for a year before deciding to begin training as a teacher.
Teaching gave Geoff lots of opportunities to share the wonders of the life of honeybees with his students, often setting up observation beehives in classrooms where the children could watch the bees returning to the hive with nectar and pollen, storing them in the wax hexagonal cells, performing wagtail communication dances, building honeycomb and watching the queen bee lay eggs.
Even today, the students at Hebron Christian College, where Geoff has been the principal for 26 years, all know about honeybees, their life cycle and benefit to mankind. Two beehives are kept on the school site which Geoff uses to demonstrate beekeeping skills to the students. He even sets up his extraction equipment and demonstrates honey harvesting to the primary and secondary assemblies. Small group workshops have also been run at Royal Oak Baptist Church where Geoff is an elder, and the church can now access a good supply of local honey.
Geoff assembles new wooden floorboards, boxes and lids during the winter months in preparation for the new spring season. The development of plastic frames has been a welcome invention and new polystyrene beehives made in Denmark are currently been trialled in Geoff’s apiaries. Rearing new queen bees allows Geoff to stock his hives with young virile queens which helps the hive reach maximum numbers of about 100,000 bees by the time the honey flow starts in October and November.
Geoff now has about 25 hives he manages on properties in Hillsborough and Lynfield. Geoff rarely wears protective clothing while handling his bees believing that bees have the ability to recognise fear, something he doesn’t exhibit when managing his hives.
Honey harvested in the area is mostly Pohutukawa which he gives away to friends and needy causes, and sells cheaply to school families and neighbours, giving the profits to the New Life Foundation orphanage in Moshi, Tanzania.
“Beekeeping is a hobby you never tire of,” says Geoff. “Honeybees are the most fascinating creatures, modelling an amazing community where the members all work together for the good of the hive. Every bee has a job to do, right from the minute the new born bee emerges from its cell, until the day it dies.”