Ann and Jeff Ross became beekeepers by accident. A few years ago, a hive of European honeybees had made themselves at home in one of the walls of Jeff and Ann’s car mechanic shop on the Sunshine Coast. Instead of just getting the hive removed, the couple decided to relocate them to their backyard. And with that they became hobby beekeepers overnight.
Little did they know at the time that their new hobby would soon turn into a business. Ann and Jeff are the founders of Hive Haven, an Australian agricultural start-up that is one part boutique honey producer and one part award-winning manufacturer of insulated hives designed for the needs of the Australian stingless native bee.
From hobby beekeeper to industry innovator
“I was doing a business degree at the University of the Sunshine Coast when we got that first hive”, remembers Ann. “While I was studying, Jeff’s interest in bees grew and he started growing his apiary .”
It didn’t take long for them to produce so much honey that they moved from giving it away to friends to labelling the honey jars and starting to sell it. These first ventures into beekeeping coincided with some entrepreneurial classes Ann took as part of her degree.
“During that time, I became really interested in the commercial opportunities for the Australian stingless native bee and used it as a case study in my assignment”, says Ann. It wasn’t long before they added a hive of Australian stingless native bees to their operations.
But when they returned from their Christmas holiday, Ann and Jeff made a sad discovery. Due to unusually hot weather their Australian stingless native bee hive had melted on itself and they lost an entire population.
“European honeybees collect water and fan it to cool down their hives, but our native bees don’t have that ability”, explains Ann. More research revealed that this was an increasingly common issue with rising temperatures across Australia. And so, the idea developed to build an insulated native bee box to help protect Australian stingless native bees from temperature extremes.
Learning through trial and error – and input from the community
These days, Hive Haven is on their ninth version of their native bee box which can be filled with four different insulation materials depending on location. “One of our customers in Tamworth has filled the insulation chamber with water and has installed a fish tank heater to protect his hive against the cold”, says Ann.
Today, the Sunshine Coast start-up has many customers many of whom buy repeatedly from them. And the couple is so confident in their invention that they guarantee the hive for temperatures up until 45 degrees Celsius.
Yet, getting to a version that could be produced at scale wasn’t a straightforward path for a business that has almost been completely bootstrapped.
And a lot of it was learned through trial and error. “Jeff would sometimes spend hours on something only to realise that he went down the wrong path at the beginning of the day and had to start all over again”, says Ann.
In addition to a lot of resilience, Ann credits the input from the Sunshine Coast Startup Community and the Food and Agricultural Network (FAN) as a key factor to their success. While it did feel risky initially for a start-up, Hive Haven decided on an open source model for their research and development. A leap of faith that paid off.
“We have been blown away by the amount and detail of the contributions we received from the community”, says the business co-founder who is also member of the Innovation Centre – Sunshine Coast and Expressway – Brisbane. “There’s no way we’d be where we are today without their input.”
In 2017, Hive Haven received a QLD Ignite Grant for the eighth version of their bee box. The cash injection allowed them to build proper moulds to scale their production.
The main demand for their bee boxes is coming from hobby beekeepers in Australia for now, but the inventors see a lot of potential in other regions such as Asia and Brazil where native bees are of similarly small size.
Advocating for the Australian stingless native bee
Despite the interest the Australian stingless native bee receives from hobbyists, Ann believes that we are only starting to scratch the surface of the huge importance and benefits of this unassuming little creature. “Unfortunately, we don’t know nearly as much about the Australian stingless native bees as we know about the European honeybees”, says Ann.
While the Australian stingless native bee is nowhere near as productive as its European counterpart – a hive of Australian stingless native bees produces 1kg of honey per year whereas a hive of European honeybees produces up to 80kg within the same timeframe – they are vital for the pollination of Australian natives and have proven to be extremely effective as natural pollinators for Macadamias.
What’s more, honey by the Australian stingless native bee is highly antibacterial and considered a rare delicacy that retails at $15 for 30g on the Hive Haven website.
To ensure their honey – of both the Australian stingless native bee and the European honeybee – meets the highest standards, Hive Haven keep their bees in permanent locations rather than chasing horticultural pollination services, meaning that they sacrifice the amount of honey they can potentially harvest for quality.
“Moving hives from farm to farm throughout the year is very popular in the US and is also becoming increasingly common in Australia”, explains Ann. “But we believe that this can cause a lot of stress for the bees and in the longer term may impact the quality of the final product.”
Interested in Hive Haven?
Learn more about the insulated bee box and Australian stingless native bee on the Hive Haven website. Or you can visit one of their trial sites such as Parliament House in Canberra or the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Queensland.