Meet the high-school beekeeper leading the charge to save the bees
Beekeeper Luke de Laeter, 16, checks his backyard hives daily. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
“Hi I’m Luke. I’m a 16-year-old beekeeper and I’m in Year 10. I love bees.”
Right from the outset, teenage beekeeper Luke de Laeter has his primary school audience captivated.
As he carefully explains how bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers, how they feed the pollen to baby bees, and how worker bees’ wings beat an eye-watering 160 times a second in order to turn nectar into honey, the students at Hilton Primary School, in Perth’s south, give him their full attention.
“The queen bee lays 2,000 eggs a day — that’s one every 46 seconds,” he tells them.
Later, he organises a series of activities for the children, from tasting the honey he collects from his backyard hives, to learning about the role of bees in sustainability and the harmful effect of pesticides on bee populations.
The lesson is one they take to heart.
Students at Hilton Primary School were captivated by Luke’s presentation. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
Asked about it later, the students are keen to share their newfound knowledge.
“Bees are one of the most deadly insects in the world,” nine-year-old Scarlett says.
“If there are two queens they fight to the death,” says Peter.
“A bee pupa must shed its skin and moult several times before entering the adult stage,” shares Sam.
A boy at one with his bees
Although he’s still at school himself, Luke has been speaking to fellow students about his passion for bees at schools around Perth for nearly two years.
He’s got his own thriving business, Luke’s Bees, and is a registered food producer licensed to sell honey from his backyard hives.
His mother Sarah — a sustainability teacher at Wesley College, where Luke goes to school — says his love of nature started at an early age.
“Luke was the one who was catching mice and having snail collections and always in the chook pen, always with baby chicks and always building something or sleeping outside under a makeshift stick shelter,” she says.
“He’s a hand-on, outdoors kid.”
Honey tasting was one of the activities Hilton Primary students participated in. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
His bee obsession began when he was given a small hive for his 14th birthday.
“We were a little bit stuck for a present,” Ms de Laeter says.
“Luke’s always liked animals, always liked being outside … and the ultimate thing for a sustainable backyard is bees, but I didn’t have time, with three children, to learn to be a beekeeper.
“So we asked Luke if he would like to take on the challenge and he accepted. And it started from there.”
A new generation of apiarist
Luke quickly became so enthusiastic about his new project that he joined the WA Apiarists’ Society, becoming its youngest member.
He not only got the group’s IT systems in order, but he also befriended experienced beekeeper Roy Arthur, who has become a mentor to the aspiring apiarist.
Luke developed his interest in bees after being given a hive for his 14th birthday. (ABC News: Richard Glover)
“It’s good to see a young fellow taking an activity by the horns, so to speak, and Luke has flourished in that environment,” Mr Arthur says.
“He’s found a niche in the organisation — he’s become the go-to person for all of our IT issues and presentations, and he’s made a definite dent in the average age of our members.”
Luke read all the books he could get his hands on about beekeeping — something he continues to do — and began selling jars of his honey through a local catering business.
He took beekeeping courses through the Apiarists’ Society and the University of Western Australia, and is currently enrolled in a Certificate Three in beekeeping.
After he gave a talk to students at his school on bees, he began getting offers to speak elsewhere, and realised how much he enjoyed sharing his passion.
“I’m pretty much only a couple of years older than most of the kids I speak to, so they can understand me,” Luke says.
Hilton Primary School principal Tony Matheson concurs.
“I think because of his age he can really relate to the children, and they respond much more to him than they would to an adult,” he says.
The buzz starts to spread
Luke has now conducted bee incursions at more than 60 schools across Perth and has already received dozens of bookings for next year.
His hives are registered with the Department of Agriculture and Luke’s Bees is also a licensed food business with six-monthly inspections, which allows him to sell his honey legally.
Luke’s Bees is a certified food business with a five-star food safety rating. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
Ms de Laeter says the experience of setting up the business has given Luke valuable skills.
“He had to design his own logo, he had to work out what to put on his jar … from the basics — the costing of the honey and what to sell it for, the budgeting for new equipment — it’s all teaching incidental business skills as he goes along.”
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Earlier this year his hives were decimated after the local council conducted a weed spraying program on verges in his street on the same day that a neighbour used pesticides to deal with a spider infestation.
“Something must have got into the hive, and it killed a 60,000 colony in a couple of days,” Luke says.
“There were piles of bees everywhere. It was hard.”
Luke teaches students about the importance of bees in sustainability. (ABC News: Richard Glover)
The incident has only strengthened his resolve to campaign against pesticides and encourage sustainability.
“It’s about teaching kids don’t use chemicals and why we need bees and how important bees are for the environment,” he says.
“Without bees, the human race would only live about five or six years after the bees die.”
An unusual hob-bee
Luke readily concedes his preoccupation with bees is unusual for a teenager at an age when many of his peers are obsessed with social media and video gaming, but those things have never interested him.
“It [beekeeping] is different — most of them [peers] are playing video games and I’m outside with bees. It’s very different, but it’s enjoyable, it’s my hobby.
He admits not all of his friends get it.
“A couple [of them] make fun [of me], but a couple think it’s really cool,” he says.
Next year Luke will be in Year 11 and he hopes to continue to expand his business while maintaining his studies.
“I can see him having multiple hives in rural areas and eventually becoming a commercial beekeeper, but hopefully keeping up with all the school things and educating children as well,” Ms de Laeter says.