Volunteer has to bee there

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Unzipping my bee veil, I popped a piece of fresh honeycomb in my mouth. The nectar, warmed by the South Australian winter sun, was delicate, perhaps because it's produced by the only purebred population of Ligurian bees on the planet.

Or perhaps it's because I, a worker bee from the city, harvested it.

My work at the Island Beehive's apiary on Kangaroo Island was possible because of a program called WWOOF, short for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, designed to get city slickers out of the concrete jungle and back to the land.

Sue Coppard felt that pull, quitting her job as a London secretary and starting the program in 1971. It has grown into a worldwide network of farmers and organic enthusiasts.

Prospective WWOOFers buy a book that lists farms, mostly organic and sustainably focused, within a designated country. The WWOOFers work five to six hours a day in exchange for accommodations, meals, information and experience. They can experience several farms. WWOOFers network and share the experiences they've had with other WWOOF hosts, suggesting which farms are worth dog-earing in your WWOOF book and which are not. Host farmers and families generally treat WWOOFers as they might exchange students, sharing friends, experience and knowledge.

WWOOF (pronounced like the sound a dog makes) has organizations all over the globe; veteran WWOOFers tell me some of the most robust programs are in New Zealand, Japan and Australia. Some hosts take several WWOOFers at a time, so you can work side by side with an array of people and bond over a shared desire to give back to the land and the people who tend it.

I learned about the program from a WWOOFer while I was traveling in Vancouver, Canada. Hearing of my passion for wine and my desire to work a grape crush, he suggested this might be a path for me too. After I started a couple of years ago, I was hooked on the program and continued on for a year, working my way around various farms in Australia and Southeast Asia.

After having worked the crush at several farms, I found the listing for an apiary on Kangaroo Island, just off southern Australia's coast, that produced one of my favorite foods -- honey -- from a rare breed of bee that existed in only that tiny little pocket of the planet.

Because of its biodiversity, Kangaroo Island has been called the Galápagos of the Southern Hemisphere. Nearly a third of the island is a conservation area or national park. Ligurian bees, known for their docile behavior and high productivity, aren't Kangaroo Island's only claim to fame. The island is also a bird-watcher's haven, home to 267 recorded species. Little penguins, goanna lizards, echidnas (spiny anteaters), kangaroos, wallabies and koalas call it home too, all of which I saw in their natural habitat while volunteering.

In 1885, the Australian parliament deemed Kangaroo Island a sanctuary for the Ligurian bees, and no imports of any other bees have been allowed since. Locals share a respect for their island's treasure and are passionate about wanting to keep the industry alive.

"WWOOFing is a part of passing along the heritage of the Ligurian bees," said Peter Davis, owner of the Island Beehive. "The only way to train young people is to make these resources available to them."

His son, Brenton Davis, was my Kangaroo Island host. The day started about 7 a.m., although sometimes we would go for a quick swim or surf before hitting the hives. Then Brenton and I would hop in the "ute," an old-school pickup truck, and head out to check the hives scattered around the island. We stopped at a several locations, which produce about 220,000 pounds of honey annually.

The hives need to be near water, which is essential in the honeymaking process because it enables the trees and flora to flower. Part of our job was to find that water. Sometimes we checked near creeks or dams; other times we parked the ute to listen for birds, which are attracted to areas with flowers that have nectar.

When we weren't scoping out new territory or moving hives to areas near water, we were checking the "supers" -- large wooden boxes filled with frames of honeycomb -- to see whether the honey was ready for harvest. After most of the cells of the honeycomb are capped with wax, you know the comb is filled with honey and it's ready. You can't open supers without taking precautions. We used a smoker, a tool filled with smoldering pine needles to make the bees react as though a fire was threatening. When they escaped to the empty lower boxes, the beekeeper was free to work.

Brenton worked without a bee suit or gloves, wearing only a veil. As we toiled, he shared stories (he gets stung about twice a day), ambitions (he hopes to build a backpackers' hostel on a gorgeous plot of land overlooking the ocean) and tidbits of farmer's wisdom (drone bees die after mating with the queen bees).

When we had several boxes full of frames ready for extraction, we headed to Kingscote and Island Beehive's extraction plant, which also doubles as a retail store and education center for travelers. We loaded the frames into the extractor, which works like a centrifuge, whirling out honey, which was then pumped into large containers.

The work wasn't always glamorous, but the chance to lend a hand and give back to the environment? Now that was sweet.


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