R Stephens Tasmanian Honey
THE BEE'S KNEES: The Stephens family are proud to continue a sweet tradition, having shared their passion for beekeeping with the worlds for more than 100 years. Pictures supplied by R Stephens Tasmanian Honey
The familiar sight of a tall bottle pinned with a blue and red label sits proudly on the store shelf, the hand-drawn leatherwood flower offering an irresistible treat for two inquisitive bees.
R Stephens Tasmanian Honey has long been a staple on dining tables both locally and, in more recent times, interstate after securing Woolworths as national stockists. What began as a post-war hobby by founder Robert Stephens in 1920 has become one of the largest and most recognised apiary operations in the state, running millions of European honey bees across 2500 hives and producing upwards of 80 tonnes of clover honey and 250 tonnes of leatherwood honey annually.
The business boasts a rich family history with Robert's son Ian and wife Shirley taking over in 1966, investing in their leatherwood honey harvest and sharing it with the world.
Today, the operation is proudly run by third generation family members - general manager Ewan Stephens and head beekeeper Neal Stephens, with sister Heather Stephens coming on board as director. Continuing the family tradition of breeding their own queens, Ewan and Neal's nephew Joshua is in charge of queen rearing and extracting - a delicate process with queens bred to pass down specific traits including, colour, temperament and gathering ability. "I am very proud to continue on with this business that my grandfather began many years ago. From what he started with to how the business has grown - to today, producing a world famous product that people all over the world love to enjoy," Ewan said, adding it has been rewarding to see how the business has changed over the years. "The business grew from [Robert's] interest in queen bees to a business just producing clover honey from farmland close to Mole Creek, he then travelled to the West Coast area where he found the leatherwood tree and found it produced beautiful flavoured honey."
Clover honey is harvested by the R Stephens Tasmanian Honey team in Northern Tasmania before the hives are moved to the West Coast to access leatherwood blossoms.
The operation bottles honey year-round with the hives producing clover honey in spring before being moved to the west coast to focus on leatherwood honey production.
Offering the bees access to farmland across the north, the clover honey is derived from a wide variety of floral sources which, in turn, creates a gentler-tasting product. "We place the hives on farmland and pastures from Sheffield through to Carrick ...these areas of the north of the state offer a beautiful clover-tasting honey." Led by Neal, the team open the hives while the swarm is distracted, gently pulling out frames to check the health of the brood, queen and frame and keeping constant vigilance for pests and disease. "All honey is returned to the Mole Creek factory where it is extracted and stored until bottled and sold," Ewan said.
Harvesting more than 35 per cent of Tasmania's total honey supply is no small feat for the Stephens family who run a tight ship, inspecting each of their hives on a fortnightly basis. "Our aim is to provide the best honey, clean and pure, and always has been." Certified organic due to the isolated position of the hives, their leatherwood honey is derived from its namesake, an endemic species to Western Tasmania which flowers from late spring through summer with the nectar from the blossoms creating honey which offers a truly unique, full-bodied flavour. "Leatherwood honey is very popular and unique as the honey is from just one flower, so it's quite strong in flavour," Ewan said.
Growing only in the rugged rain forests of the state's west, leatherwood trees are also known to produce honey two to three times richer in antioxidants than other Australian honeys. The trip west with the hives is something to behold with the family loading the palettes aboard the ABT Wilderness Railway to Teepookana (via Strahan) in order to access the World Heritage Areas of the Franklin and Bird Rivers. "There is no cleaner air found anywhere in the world," Ewan said, adding the hives are placed in locations near to Derwent Bridge, Queenstown, Roseberry and the Strahan area to access leatherwood trees.
After recent flooding in the north, Ewan said the west is still desperate for rain. "The west is suffering and needs good rain in the next eight weeks to keep the trees well-watered through summer." Like most farming families, Ewan said working outside in the pristine Tasmanian forest and tending to the hives was one of the best parts of his job. "Bees are very calming and intelligent creatures," he said. "The days spent out with the bees are my favourite - unfortunately for me most of my days are spent at the factory running the extracting/bottling plant, selling honey and day to day running of the business.
"Neal is the lucky one who tends to the bees every day."
*First published November 2022 for Tasmanian Farmer Newspaper - owned by Australian Community Media.