STORY AND PICTURES BY RICHARD CORNISH
Des O’Toole is one of those blokes whose mouth barely opens when he talks. A hard-working bushman and apiarist, he has spent his life in the forests of Central Victoria and those further north. He bought his first beehive when he was 18. He was working with neighbouring family, the McCahons who were also making frames and boxes for the honey industry. Keen to earn a few extra dollars, Des bought a hive to sell the honey. Eventually he went out on his own and for the past 35 years he has worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week with his bees to produce some of the best honey in the country.
“I started out here in the Wombat State Forest,” says Des as he checks his hives, smoker in hand. “Here the bees feed on Messmate, Manna Gum and Peppermint Gum,” he says. He likes he flavour of Messmate that he describes as ‘malty’. The various species in the Wombat only flower every three to five years so he puts his hives on farms with stands of Yellowbox towards Castlemaine. Bees foraging on Yellowbox produce good flows of honey. “It’s my favourite,” he says.
Despite his tacit manners Des has a dry wit, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush and an aficionado’s appreciation of honey. He can detect six or more different species in a single honey.
He scratches the wax off a frame with his gnarled finger, tastes it and reels off the names of the trees the bees have been feeding on: Messmate, Mallee, Kangaroo Flower. “That’s that sharp taste at the end,” he says. “It’s Kangaroo Flower, a little native. Younger people like that sort of flavour.”
Des and his wife Debi do as little as possible to get their honey into the jar. He doesn’t use words like ‘raw honey’ or ‘cold processed’. Des is too old school. “We take the wax caps off,” says Des. “We spin it in a centrifuge, filter it through cheesecloth and then put it in a jar,” he says. “I have seen a lot over the years,” he says, describing his office colleagues of wallabies, koalas and reptiles. “Climate change is affecting the bush in different ways,” he says with a tone that borders on empathy for the trees. “The bush really feels the heat. Gum trees are used to hot days,” he says. “But not these long spells of hot day after hot day. The trees lose their leaves and you can see right through the bush.” Des, however, sees a sweet future. Recent wet could mean a good year for great honey.
Des and Debi O’Toole can be found at local farmers markets and their road side stall is open 7 days at 143 Jubilee Lake Rd,
Daylesford ph (03) 5348 2997.