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A long road to rebuild for Kangaroo Island beekeeper

Kangaroo Island

A story from Kangaroo Island in South Australia, reflecting life in September 2020.

When the devastating bushfires swept through large areas of Kangaroo Island during the summer of 2019-20, they wiped out 85-90 per cent of Grantley Johnson’s beehives. It all but destroyed his business.

Grantley has been an apiarist – a commercial beekeeper – on Kangaroo Island since he was young. He refers to his bees as ‘my girls’. His dream has been to build his business to the point where he can open it to tourism. To operate at that level he would need a large shed and extraction plant. He was about six months off being able to build this when the fire hit.

“Only a few of the hives were insured,” Grantley said. “I had them spread across a few parts of the Island and never thought they’d all be impacted like this.”

While a few of Grantley’s hives survived, he soon realised it would not be business as usual. When he went to ‘smoke’ the hives, as is usual practice in beekeeping, his ‘girls’ did not react well.

“They were really irritated, and trying to sting me, which they hardly ever do,” Grantley said. “They had obviously had quite enough smoke!”

Grantley was able to access a primary producer grant, which has helped him begin to rebuild. This funding has gone towards hardware. The boxes and frames required for beekeeping are particularly expensive on Kangaroo Island as it is not possible to use second hand products due to the Island’s status as a sanctuary for the Ligurian bee.

Kangaroo Island has the purest breed of Ligurian bee that can be found anywhere in the world. This makes the recovery of Grantley’s business even more important.

“I’m just so thankful for the support I’ve received,” Grantley said.

His business also received a number of donations, including a donation of sugar syrup from Queensland that will keep his bees fed for the next year, and help from the South Australian Apiarists’ Association.

“They came over for several weeks to help build hundreds of boxes and thousands of frames. It would have taken me hundreds of hours on my own.”

Another support that has been critical for Grantley has come from a local farming family allowing him to keep his hives on their land. They have also employed him as a farm hand to give him an income while he rebuilds his business.

“I work five days a week as a farm hand, clearing off burnt fence lines with the tractor, shearing, crutching, whatever needs doing,” said Grantley.

Having been on the land for about 45 years, Grantley has plenty of valuable skills to offer. The job keeps the food on the table for his family while he works to rebuild his business. He has not had a day off in many months. He is tired, but he is focussed on recovering from the impact of the fire and getting his business back up and running again.

“The week after the fire I was almost ready to give up,” said Grantley “I thought ‘I’m too old to start again and don’t have enough years to build back up to where I was’”.

He is now focussed on breeding his bees to get their numbers up. Any honey the bees produce will be needed to feed their young. He anticipates that it will take at least three years before he gets income from his bees again.

However, the various support he has received has given Grantley renewed hope.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to where I was with the business, and looking after ‘my girls’”.