Bees fly about a small village of powder blue hives placed in a clearing under towering Gippsland red gums, their bunches of tiny flowers fragrant with nectar. It smells like golden syrup and hot butter.
30-year-old East Gippsland beekeeper Ben Murphy puffs smoke into the hives to subdue his bees. He is a rare beast, a young man entering an industry dominated by much older professionals. The former butcher turned to beekeeping seven years ago, working under legendary East Gippsland honey man Ian Cane.
18 months ago, Murphy bought the Tambo Valley Honey business from Cane. Then came the summer fires. In January, the Buchan blaze wiped out 200 of his hives. A patch of green grass saved hundreds more from going up in flames. Half the native forests that once fed his bees nectar were incinerated.
"Some of it won't return in my lifetime," says Murphy. "My little fella [three-year-old Easton], might not see it in his either."
Murphy, however, has a plan to sweeten his fortunes. He spends days on end hiking through the valleys, gullies, and ravines of East Gippsland, searching for remnant patches of rare eucalypts that produce nectar from which his bees make exceptional honey.
Wandering down from a limestone ridge into the Tambo River valley, he stops at a massive old gum, its trunk the girth of a water tank, its ancient boughs covered in mossy green round leaves surrounded by tight bunches of small yellow flowers.
"This is round leaf box," says Murphy. "It makes the most beautiful honey. I grew up next to two of these trees. Massive old trees. I was always looking forward to when they flowered each year. All those flowers and covered in bees. I guess that's why I ended up a beekeeper."
Round leaf box are an iconic East Gippsland tree, but elusive in numbers large enough for bees to produce honey, and only flower profusely every few years. When the nectar does flow, Murphy's bees make honey that is tight, clear and delicate, with a fine aroma and crisp finish.
His other honeys are distinctive. The red stringy bark tastes of old fashioned nougat; his red gum tastes how its blossoms smell – like butter and golden syrup – making it like a liquid Anzac biscuit.
"My aim is to make honey that tastes like where it comes from," says Murphy. "Something unique, something we East Gippslanders can be proud of."
Tambo Valley Honey is available from Rod's Fruit and Veg, South Melbourne and Walma's Continental Meats, Bayswater, starting at $10 for 400 grams.
Australian Pollinator Week
"Honey is a product of pollination and pollination is vital to our modern food production systems," says Western Victorian botanist and beekeeper Dr. Anna Carrucan.
Speaking on the eve of Australian Pollinator Week (November 8-15), she says, "one in three bites of food, from apples to zucchini, is pollinated by honey bees. Honey production is worth $200 million annually, but the work pollination honey bees do is worth $14 billion. And you can add to that the $14 billion worth of pollination done by 2000 species of native bees."
Australian Pollinator Week is a seven-day online festival promoting the work done by pollinating insects. It includes a live Facebook walk through gardens hosted by the ABC's Gardening Australia host Costa Georgiadis, and webinars on how Melburnians can plant their gardens to attract and feed bees all year round.