Meet Tasmania's accidental apiarist on a mission to find unusual native honey flavours
Speaking calmly as he lifts the lid off a hive, horticulturalist Rob Barker explains how he never intended to be a beekeeper, but then the universe sent him a sign.
Or more accurately, 20,000 individual little signs, complete with wings and stingers.
"I was setting up a market garden to supply some chefs down in Hobart and one day a swarm of bees moved into a tree next to my garden," Mr Barker said.
"At the time it was a bit of a scary scenario, you've got 20,000 bees buzzing like a low-flying aircraft, so I ran for it!
"I hid in the shed and waited for them to leave but they never did, so I had to get used to them pretty quick."
As part of Tasmania's burgeoning small-scale beekeeping industry, Mr Barker now cares for approximately 150 hives along Tasmania's eastern coastline.
Like many honey producers in Tasmania, Mr Barker would take his hives on a journey deep into the forests on Tasmania's west coast in search of leatherwood flowers.
But as an east coast native and self-confessed "alternative" he decided to turn his attention towards home.
Mr Barker said while leatherwood honey from Tasmania's west coast was sought after, the travelling became too much for him.
"I'm more of a collector of rare things," Mr Barker said.
"The east coast is pretty special. There's a lot of flora that's influenced by the soil types and climate.
"I dapple in a few species but my favourite by far is Bursaria spinosa. It's also known as prickly box or Christmas bush.
"I also go after tea tree — which you might know as Manuka — but also Kunzea ambigua, which has a beautiful scent and a deep flavour characteristic that I love."
Many commercial keepers in Tasmania store their hives on agricultural or bush blocks during the off season, feeding off the pollen of introduced species such as the weed gorse to sustain the hive.
That is because some native species, such as red ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon or Eucalyptus tricarpa), produce a pollen seasonally which is not enough to nutritionally support a hive year-round.
Mr Barker said he hasn't had any issues keeping his hives healthy in the downtime.
"I'm pretty lucky I guess. My operation is pretty small. I don't have the volume of bees and I'm not looking for large volumes of honey," he said.
"I always make sure to leave plenty of honey for the bees.
"We're pretty lucky on the east coast. There's plenty of flora, you just need to know where it is and where to put your hives."
Mr Barker said it is the variety of plants that keeps him excited.
"I've got hives all the way from the mouth of the River Derwent at Bruny Island, up to Coles Bay and the Freycinet peninsula.
"Those totally contrasting soil types and climates produce completely different honey.
"It's not all about the bees. I get to move around and see really cool places and get to indulge in the environment.
"There's some amazing nectars out there and some amazing honey, and I'm just happy to be a part of that."
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