Merolyn Fifine is a high school agriculture and science teacher in the Eastern Highlands province of Papua New Guinea. An agriculture teacher, her hobbies include farming crops and poultry, and tending to her passion for growing flowers. Five years ago, she took up beekeeping and to her surprise, found that bees had a lot of other unexpected benefits and shared her interest in the colourful flowers of Goroka. Merolyn sat down to tell MDF in her own words about her taste for honey farming in Papua New Guinea, her circle of influence, and her plans for 2018.
I have been teaching at Goroka Secondary School since 2002. Poultry was my favourite [hobby farming activity] but I got introduced to bees in 2013 and bees are becoming my first priority. What I like about bees is that they go around looking for things everywhere; they are especially attracted to flowers. You don’t require a lot of energy to keep bees compared to poultry. Poultry is labour intensive, but bees take less than 30 minutes to check. That’s why I like looking after bees and that interest is building up so fast.
I started doing bee farming in 2013 with only two boxes (beehives). Because I was never trained, I never harvested any honey and I almost gave up. In 2014 I did my first harvest, but from 2015-2016 I had no harvest because I still lacked the training. Although I am an agriculture teacher, I didn’t know a lot about bees. I teach about other things. I paid for some training in 2015 and got a little bit of information and kept on with my two boxes.
Just last year, New Guinea Fruit (NGF) offered bee farmer training in partnership with MDF. I don’t know how they knew about my bees, but they gave me a call and they said, “You are invited to attend a course, free of charge.” I was kind of amazed. How did they know I was a bee farmer? I attended that course and it was done perfectly. I learnt a lot and it was really encouraging.
I thought, “If other ladies and other bee farmers are able to have 10 boxes, why not me?” So, my aim for the end of 2017 was to have 10 boxes, and now I do.
Every morning, I wake up, the first thing I do is I go say “hi” to my bees. I go stand or sit among the taro and look at how the bees are moving in and out. I make sure that they are coming with pollen and nectar. You can see them carrying it. When I see it wrapped all around their legs, I am happy they’re collecting it.
When I’m checking the bees I have to wear my protective gear. That includes a veil that covers the head, and hand gloves and long pants and a long coat. I have a smoker, and I have a hive knife too. When I didn’t have the gear, I was attacked a couple of times. I got stung. It’s very painful, but I say it’s bittersweet.
When I check my bees, I open the box and make sure the bees are working. I shift empty, unattended frames from one location to the other within the box itself. I do this every week with the boxes just close to my house and for the other boxes up at my block, about 15 minutes by PMV (public transport) away, I take my kids up there on weekends and we check them.
The harvest part comes during the honey flows when I check the bees and the bee frames are covered with honey, completely sealed up with honey all the way to the lid. That tells me I am ready to harvest. I remove the excess honey from the lid and I put it on the plate and I tell my kids to come and enjoy the fresh honey.
I’ll admit, I’m still a bee-ginner ;). I don’t know how to harvest or how to do the honey processing. Once I have lots of sealed honey frames, I contact NGF. They provide the transport and take the box to NGF. They also help me learn about my bees and which frames are okay to harvest. Only one or two bees follow us to NGF, not a lot of them. The extracting of the honey out of the frame and bottling is done by New Guinea Fruit.
I did three harvests in 2017: one in August, one in October, and I did the final one in December. That one was for my son because he’s in university. In the family, everyone is afraid of bees. When my son came back for holidays I said, “You have to help me because I’m aiming to get a good harvest for your school fees.” We harvested five boxes. The harvest part is the most enjoyable part of beekeeping. When it’s time for harvesting we are so excited as farmers.
Now I am encouraging other female teachers. If I can do it, they can do it.
I feel like I am beginning to positively influence the others. I’m telling them, as soon as we reach the age of around 55-60, we will no longer be required to teach in this place. We have to retire. So that’s my exit plan. Amazingly, one teacher started five boxes last year.
My advice for beginners is, “Don’t give up. Even though the going is tough, keep on going.”
I started with two boxes, and NGF has supported me to manage my bee mites and swarming, and answered my questions about setting wax foundations on frames. As a beginner I’m learning lots of things and I’m encouraging my colleagues as well. New Guinea Fruit is providing all the training, all the facilities, all you have to do is just look after your bees.
As a bee farmer, and a beginner, there are obstacles we meet along the way. One of them is that I want things to go very fast and initially there are big costs involved.
I’m teaching beekeeping to my students as well. For the bees, the very first time I harvested, I went and boasted about it to my grade 11 class. I asked them, “Who knows about bees?” And they all raised their hands up. And I asked them, “Who knows how to look after bees?” Nobody raised their hand. I wrote the amount that I got paid, very big on the board, for harvesting two boxes.
I told them, “While you are a student in the classroom, your bees are making money for you. And that’s your school fees.” I’m trying to encourage the students. I told them if they are thinking of looking after hives, to come and see me. I will give them all the advice and all the help that they need.
I would like to add beekeeping to the curriculum here. At the moment, we don’t have many beekeeping books or reference books to encourage it to be taught, but now New Guinea Fruit has launched the beekeeping guidebook I am happy because I can use that to teach. And I can bring in the experienced senior beekeepers to come and teach the practical side of beekeeping. My dream is to have boxes for the school to generate income for the school. That’s what we do in the agriculture department and the same can be done with honey.
Next year, my aim is to have another 10 boxes so when you come back next year I should have 20 boxes. I have already prepared all the things to cater for my 20 boxes; a big area and permanent stands. I’m really happy that I have become a beekeeper. I am only regretting that I didn’t know about this sooner.
As told to Amanda Donigi, Communications Specialist MDF Papua New Guinea
Photos courtesy of Cooper Schouten, Beekeeping Expert