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Life's a buzz

Although humbly referring to himself as 'senior janitor' on Facebook, BeeBox owner Mike Burt is a beekeeper, a painter, a family man . . . and has a law degree

Family man, nature lover and second generation beekeeper Michael Burt speaks with Sophie Rishworth about being in business, raising a young family, and his early years in a Mormon family . . .

Michael, or Mike as he is known, has been in the honey business since he was born. His dad Peter was a beekeeper too so he and his brothers grew up on honey sandwiches under the Gisborne sun.

He took over the family business about 13 years ago and now a third generation of Burts are enjoying eating bread with honey made by Dad.

BeeBox the business is relationship-based much like its owner Mike — even though he refers to himself as the “senior janitor” on Facebook.

He wants people to hear the name, know his name and know he and the business are part of the community, not some “fly-by-nighter”.

Mike, who turns 40 this year, finds the business world hard to get his head around sometimes. He says paperwork is always late and he is the “world's worst” at organising people.

It is the people side he is most interested in.

“We are people who want to do things a bit differently. When you grow up as part of a funny religion, in a weird family, you've got to find your own place. You've got to stay true to your values, yourself, and hopefully it works out. But it might not,” he says philosophically.

Mike admits he is not perfect.

“I am trying to figure it out and doing the best I can. I am open to learning and know I have made mistakes and f**ked things up.”

He just hopes that karmic see-saw ends up working in his favour.

His most favourite thing in the world is hanging out with the children.

“We've got really neat kids, they're fun.”

He and fiancé Sarah Robertson have two children — three-year-old Murphy, and Minerva who is 10 months old.

Murphy has his own pint-sized beekeeper suit and accompanies Dad on trips to check the hives.

“I'm trying to spend more time with the kids while they're little. All the old geezers I know say, “They are the special years.”

He and Sarah are both from Gisborne but like most teenagers had their sights set beyond this region until they realised this was the place to be.

Raised as a Mormon, Mike spent two years door-knocking for the religion from when he was 19.

It was a rite of passage he likened to military service.

But at 27 he left the church, which was around the same time he took over the family beekeeping business.

He had spent his school and university holidays working with the bees and, as a nature lover, knew it was something he enjoyed.

But he had graduated with a law degree and started interviewing for jobs. His father stepped in, after successfully beating a brain tumour, and told him now was the time if he wanted to take over. So he did.

“Turns out running a business is way harder than being a seasonal labourer,” says Mike, with a laugh.

He ran the business for about 10 years before the children came along.

Now, he estimates he works about two-thirds full time.

It was Sarah's idea to call the business BeeBox and she introduced the stall at the Farmers Market where the honey, and wax from the hives, is sold every Saturday.

Giving back to the community

One of the business principles Mike follows is to give back to the community.

The budget hasn't always allowed it but over the years he has contributed an AED heart starter to the Tiniroto community, plus last week gave SuperGrans Tairawhiti a tonne of honey which filled more than 3000 jars. The main intention was he wanted people who could not afford it to have a jar of honey in the pantry, which was made in their community.

He thinks all businesses should do it.

BeeBox operations manager Whyte Trashe (that is the name on his driver licence, he confirmed) is a great manager, and there has always been a good team around him, says Mike.

He pays credit to the people who don't work for him any more but who contributed in some way to the success BeeBox is today.

Beekeeping is a really weird business, he says, and compares it to a sharemilker.

“We don't own any land except for our base on Back Ormond Road.”

Mike has different kinds of agreements with the farms and forestry land where he places his bee boxes.

In the places where the bees get manuka honey, he pays a percentage. For the other types of honey there are different arrangements, not many contracts and deals are sealed with a handshake.

Mike and Sarah are both artists. They met while Sarah was working as a chef at the PBC cafe, and he had a studio upstairs where he was doing his “coffee-fuelled” art.

Mike's grandmother Doreen Costello was a painter too.

He remembers as a young lad going to visit her in Tokomaru Bay.

“We would do pottery and paint and she would tell us how clever we were.”

Being creative helps keep him calm, so there is usually a project on the go at his workshop — whether it be making dining tables out of the tops of beeboxes, or making the beehives and painting them all the outlandish colours he likes — purely for the fun of it (it is not to attract the bees).

It has always been a tradition of beekeepers to buy, or be given, the leftover garish paint at cheap prices that nobody else wants.

“I love the multi-colour look,” says Mike. “I also like it because when we have beehives on the farm, we don't want the kids to be scared of them. They are meant to look like paintbox towers and not have that industrial look.”

He has a soft spot for nostalgia.

The letterbox at Beebox's base on Back Ormond Road is a re-purposed NZ Post box he found at Barwicks one day.

It reminds him of the post box that used to be beside Wainui Store when he caught the bus to school as he was growing up.

BEE BUSINESS: BeeBox owner and beekeeper Mike Burt says Gisbonre produces some of the best honey in the world. He graduated with a law degree but took over the family beekeeping business. Pictures by Paul Rickard
Mr Burt is also a painter (one of his works is pictured above), but with a young family and a business to run there is not always the time.