Beekeeping and other environment and sustainable practices are becoming increasingly popular across Australia, and for good reason. There is a noticeable yearning for a connection with nature within our communities. This is where Bee Sustainable steps in.
Bee Sustainable is a socially and environmentally responsible business providing information and products to help anyone live a sweeter and more sustainable lifestyle. The business encourages domestic production of food and responsible use of resources through their workshops and sustainable food products. In this feature, we speak with owner Robert Redpath, where he talks of his sweet beginnings, bees and how his business aims to take part in creating a healthy green future.
How did everything start for you?
I had the knowledge of beekeeping because my father was a honey merchant and a beekeeper. I’ve grown up with him keeping bees, and buying and selling honey. That was in the ‘60s. Whilst my father had a business, I’ve had a whole different working life. I’ve been a secondary and tertiary teacher; I’ve done IT consultancy. I did all that for about 35 years.
And about 6 years ago, I decided I wanted a change. I thought I’d run a business with beekeeping and making food for homes.” That was just my simple idea. Because nobody was really looking after production of food, domestically at home very well. There are beekeeping supply shops, and other kinds of specialist shops, but I thought that if I had one that looked after bread, cheese, honey, beekeeping and preserving jars, as well as books and information on how to grow food and how to live sustainably, there’d be a demand for that kind of business. Now, six years on, I think I’m quite happy that that sort of worked out.
When you said, you wanted a change, did you mean you were tired of your old career?
I was. Office work is very draining work. I do understand that you’re much more motivated when you’re in a small business and are part of a small team. We’re working for people, people we know. You’re not as motivated when working in big organisations. But unfortunately, that’s the way the economy works. For most people, they’re part of a big organisation. But it’s glorious not to be!
What challenges did you encounter in starting up?
I suppose it’s getting known - that’s the challenge of any new business. But I try not to put myself under too much pressure. I’ve done this after another long career and I didn’t have the financial pressure to make a lot of money. Instead of trying to create a huge business quickly, my strategy has just been to let the business evolve slowly, observe where demand lies, and introduce new ideas at a pace I can deal with. It’s a slow, organic growth happening here in Brunswick East.
It’s really wonderful to see you’ve done well for yourself, considering you shifted from a wholly different career. Were you already highly proficient [in beekeeping & sustainable practices] when you decided to startup?
Well, I did know a lot about beekeeping because of my father. I’ve had to learn about many of the other practices, like bread making, cheese making and preserving. I learn all the time now because I get confronted with new things all the time.
Why did you decide to hold the workshops?
The workshops actually happened by accident. I spent a year planning the business, and I found a location and decided I wanted a retail shop; brick-and-mortar. I created the shop and people asked me to do a bee course. I wasn’t that keen at first. But I finished up doing a bee course and found it was very popular, and just by accident discovered how much people liked the workshop and learning.
And then I made some lovely connections with a bread maker and a cheese maker, someone who is doing fermenting, and now a new one too, a Danish bread maker. Having the physical location is a wonderful way to meet people and network, which you’d never get if you just try an all-internet kind of business. The workshops have now become a very important part of our business and have been a wonderful way to introduce people to the business as well. It’s not just simply about having the workshops.
What is usually the motivation for people to learn beekeeping?
There seems to be three groups of people that get interested. Young people, young married couples with children and then older people. In all cases, they’re looking for the pleasure of having their own food. People with children love for their children to know where food comes from. People also love to get in touch with nature, and they get to observe the weather and the seasons much more when they’ve got a beehive. Because you know the impact it’s going to have on the hive.
On cold days, the bees can’t fly. On sunny days, they’re out working very hard. If it’s too wet or too windy, they can’t work. And so, you observe the seasons. In the modern world, where we have heated homes and heated cars, and air-conditioned cars, we barely comprehend what season it is, or what nature is doing. But once you’ve got a beehive, you do get much more interested in nature and you observe it more closely. And that’s actually very satisfying and fulfilling. It grounds people to be more in touch with nature and its cycles.
Sustainability is still a buzz word in many parts of the world and in Australia, but has this always been your way of life?
Oh, I don’t think consciously with those words. But if you’re asking about my politics, they’re essentially green and essentially environmental. It’s been a great distress for me my entire life - the rate of which we cut down our forests around the world. I’ve been a member of the Australian Conservation Society. I’ve generally been concerned about these issues for a long time.
I just read a beautiful book, “The Hidden Life of Trees”. It explained how trees really only work when they’re in a big community. They communicate with each other through fungal networks under the ground and all this other amazing stuff. It’s clear to me that people are on some kind of mission to destroy the planet. But there are a lot of people that care about it too and you’ve got no option but to fight the good fight for as long as you can.
It really is concerning, what people are doing and how vested interests in money determine the outcome of so many things. There are a lot of big issues and it’s bothered me for a long time. But you just keep calm and carry on, and vow to change and try to act in a small way to change things. So, yes. I’m just acting in a small way to push things in the right direction.
I understand there are also some threats to the bee population. What are some of the biggest ones?
Yes, there are threats. Especially in Europe, North America and Eurasia because there’s a lot of pests going around the world that are damaging the bee population. There’s an excessive use of pesticides and pesticides build up in the system and affect the bees. Australia is still doing okay, there’s been no crash of bee populations in Australia. But there have been in North America and Europe. So yes, it is a concern and we’ll have to be aware of it because the problems that are elsewhere come to Australia eventually.
What can the ordinary citizen do to help alleviate this problem?
There are a lot of lobby groups. We’ve got to support the activities of the primary industry organisations and government agencies that try and stop the pests from coming in. And also, the government needs to be lobbied about the use of herbicides and pesticides. This builds up in the system and they eventually are worse for the environment and make agriculture production worse, plus destroying bee populations as they go along.
I feel a bit unqualified to tell people how to act politically but I think you’ve just got to be conscious of the issues, take action where you can and make sure you’re voting for change.
What have been the best and worst parts of running your business?
Oh, the worst side of running a business is the administration and satisfying the various government requirements that are placed on you. I’ve never had to do that till I had a business and I find it tedious and boring and difficult, and possible to get wrong at times. I consider myself a poor administrator and I’m trying to get better at it. I just want to get efficient at it so it doesn’t occupy me.
But the best thing about the business is I meet such lovely people. That’s the employees that I have and the customers.
Finally, what are your future plans for yourself and Bee Sustainable?
Just to grow the business slowly and to expand the product range. I want to grow the business big enough so I can step away from it. I’d love to do some manufacturing in the future, to make beekeeping equipment. I also want to write books on sustainability and beekeeping. Those are my other little dreams.
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