As she sits next to a veggie patch edged by towering sunflowers circled by bees, Claire Moore says she never imagined her lifelong bee obsession would see her end up entrenched in Victoria’s criminal justice system.
“I’ve adored them from a really young age,” she says, recalling early memories of being tugged away reluctantly from the danger of her buzzing, golden, wonderous playmates.
“It’s incredible to now see how working with them can increase the employability of people coming out of the justice system.”
While the link may at first seem odd, it begins to make sense as Moore recounts the string of chance encounters, jarring events and a “baptism of fire” that have marked her apiary career since bringing home her first backyard hive in 2007.
She’s speaking over the thrum emanating from a labyrinth of nearby workrooms, at the headquarters of her fledgling commercial honey enterprise, under a huge shed, surrounded as far as the eye can see by the dense bushland of Whipstick National Park, just north of Bendigo, Victoria.
Her aspirations for the business are ambitious – and not just her goal to become one of Victoria’s largest 100 per cent pure honey producers (and an expanding list of stockists since packing the first honey jars in September last year signals she’s well on the way).
What sets it apart are Claire's unique plans to use it as a training and employment generator for people re-entering the community after time spent in youth detention and corrections facilities.
She explains that, to her, it’s essentially a neat – albeit far from easy – way to play a part in tackling two big problems she’s come to care deeply about: the need to halt the decline in commercial beekeeper ranks given their essential role in Australia’s food security; and to find new ways to give people a hand after spending time inside.
Claire first picked up the threads of these issues more than 15 years ago at a time she was working in a very different career – as a stockbroker in Melbourne – and moonlighting as a hobby weekend apiarist. Her enchantment with her first beehive saw her swiftly add to it, until her suburban backyard was filled – to the point, she cheerfully recalls, the council issued warnings.
Wanting to zero-in on her side-passion – and nudged-on by unexpected health problems experienced in chorus by husband Paul and her mother – Claire upped sticks in 2014 with Paul, their three small kids and all the beehives, moving to a property near Victoria’s Macedon Ranges where they started the Good Life Farm Co. The next five years were spent happily producing award-winning free-range eggs and taking a first tilt at commercial production of sweet, golden honey.
Between wrangling kids, chickens, bees and farmers’ markets, Claire immersed herself in studying queen bee breeding, qualifying to use artificial insemination to generate particular traits to improve the resilience of her bees – work that led to national recognition, including an AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award.
The trigger for her enterprise, aptly called Sweet Justice, came during a radio interview in 2019 about her trailblazing breeding efforts. Out-of-the-blue, she was asked if she’d ever consider training beekeeping skills to people in youth detention, an idea the radio host heard had been trialled in the USA.
“I said, 'No, not in a million years',” Claire says with a chuckle. But she found she couldn’t shake off the idea and, on a whim, called the closest youth justice centre to float it.
“They said, 'Yeah, great idea; bring in some hives',” she says, admitting that although she was a certified beekeeping trainer, at the time she knew nothing about the justice system.
Throwing herself all in and learning by stealth, Claire became what she describes as a “resident beekeeper” at Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct, enabling the young people there to choose beekeeping as one of their vocational training options.
“It had huge interest,” says Claire of the program, essentially the first iteration of Sweet Justice.
“It’s still the highlight of the week for me to teach the program. I really like hanging out with the young people and I could see how, over time, as they were given that responsibility to care for the bees, they take it with great pride.
“They know it’s a privilege to manage them and make sure they thrive, and stepping up to that can be a great motivator.”
Following COVID-related interruptions, Claire was asked to roll out the program to other centres including adult corrections and calculates that in the year to end June 2023, around 180 people will have engaged in the programs at four facilities across the state.
But alongside the joys of her time inside, she says one aspect had caused heartache.
“When you work with people over a period of time, you care about them, you see how well they're doing and then when they leave the justice system, for some, life just doesn’t turn out the way they'd hoped,” she says.
“They can be trying their absolute hardest, but not have the right support, resources and employment. When they come back in, that’s devastating. Because all you want is for them to succeed.”
Claire's instinct to help catalysed the next evolution of Sweet Justice, the creation of her honey producing enterprise to offer career pathways on the outside to people like those she’d been working with on the inside.
One of first to join, who we’ll call Chris to maintain anonymity, says day by day he’s more excited about his beekeeping prospects, despite his initial fear of the bees. Absentmindedly rubbing a reddish-looking lump on un-inked skin between tattoos on his forearm, he says with a grin it’s his second sting since starting the job a few weeks before.
“On my first day, one got me right on the back of my heel,” he laughs. “But it's all fine.”
Chris had been out of work for two and a half years since leaving the justice system, when he heard about the job from his social worker at the time, Pix, now the enterprise’s admin and welfare manager.
“I had some personal stuff going on, was sick, not eating properly,” says the 29-year-old. “But now that I’m working and not sitting at home all day, I'm all good.”
Although it’s not something he’d ever thought about doing, Chris – who operates the honey extraction machinery, helps move the hives around and has learnt a lot about the inner workings of bee colonies – says he’s keen to go for his beekeeper qualifications through the accredited training offered by Sweet Justice.
“It's a real sticky job,” he laughs. “But it's really different how they treat you here, being around good people. I love it. It's calming. I'm glad I'm finally here.”
Claire says there’s been plenty of ups and downs in building the business, and concedes she’s had to dig deep into her connections and her reserves of energy to overcome hurdle after hurdle – among the biggest to remain, is the lack of local housing options for employees. But as she strides in her white beekeeping suit across the 30 acres of bushland she’s rented for her headquarters, and crouches with her smoker over one of her initial 1300 hives to gaze fondly on the bees, she says couldn’t be hungrier to scale.
Already eyeing an expansion of her assets to 3000 hives with the potential to produce around 200,000 kilos of honey per year, she’s also looking to hire more people. In addition to a small core of permanent operations staff, she aims to generate 12 roles for people from the justice system, at any one time – and hopes many of them will go on to become qualified commercial beekeepers.
By offering these supported career paths, Claire hopes to do her bit in rallying more people to join her profession – an industry in which data shows the number of commercial beekeepers has fallen by around 36 per cent to 1800 during the past half century, a worrying trend for the future of food production.
“Without bees and beekeepers, we wouldn’t have the vast majority of foods that we eat, and I genuinely don’t think many Australians realise that,” says Claire.
Around 35 per cent of crops simply would not be able to be produced without pollination by bees, she says, including almonds, avocados, blueberries, cucumbers, mangoes, apples, rockmelons and pumpkins.
“The industry – and all Australians – really need more beekeepers right now, and we want Sweet Justice to be part of the solution.”
Written by Emma Foster: email@example.com