Up for the sweetest challenge
FOR Ugis Lauberts, the path from an idyllic seaside resort in the former Soviet state of Latvia to the black soil plains of Wheatvale began when he was just six years old.
Mr Lauberts would spend his school holidays at his grandfather's farm in the Latvian countryside, tending to the bees and forging a passion that stands today.
As his grandfather slept he would take "swarm watch” and recalls puffing the smoker and learning everything he could about the bees and their place in nature.
"That was my childhood,” Mr Lauberts said.
"I loved the times spent there.”
At 13, Mr Lauberts was given his first hive and with it a source of income.
His parents, who worked for the state television company, were not poor but Mr Lauberts recalled money was scarce.
He would earn his own money selling strawberries and honey by the roadside to the hordes of tourists who descended on his resort town of Jurmala during the warm Baltic summer months.
"I was always around bees and I began to realise I could make something out of it,” Mr Lauberts said.
"I would buy my own shoes for school and I think that time was responsible for instilling in me the strong work ethic I still carry.”
Mr Lauberts also carries one regret from his childhood.
A champion badminton player by the age of 12, he said his future in the sport was bright.
With no more competition left in his homeland, Mr Lauberts travelled extensively with his sport.
"I was too young for the national team,” he said.
"At 13 or 14 my parents decided my studies were more important. It still hurts - I tried other sports but badminton was closest to my heart.”
He remembers too the bloodshed and uncertainty as the Soviet Union fell apart.
"There was fighting, Russian SAS came in helicopters,” he said.
"I was only eight or nine but I remember times being very tough. There was no food, no fuel and no money.”
In his teenage years, things started to unravel for the aspiring beekeeper.
Alcoholism is the number-one problem in Latvia and Mr Lauberts fell into drinking heavily as a teen, often fighting and going looking for trouble or engaging in petty crime and vandalism.
"I only just avoided jail time in my senior year at school,” he said.
"It was 2003 and I just wanted to get out of Latvia.
"I saw an ad for trainee beekeepers wanted in the US and my eyes lit up. That was my ticket out.
"So I did what I had to do to make it happen.”
Next stop was Arkansas.
"I was deep into redneck country,” Mr Lauberts said.
"I hated every second of it so when I saw an ad for beekeepers wanted in Hawaii, I approached my exchange agency and they got me a job.
"I knew nothing of Hawaii, where it was, what the weather was like - just that it was an island.”
He landed there two weeks later with $15 in his pocket and started what he describes as the best time of his life.
Working for the world's largest queen bee breeding company in the world, surfing and gaining invaluable work experience, Mr Lauberts spent 14 months on the island.
Next came a stint back in Latvia after Mr Lauberts decided he should be a "good boy” and return to study for a career in hospitality. After only a few months, while staring out a classroom window, he realised that sun, surf and bees was the only path his life was meant to take.
From there he travelled to France and then onto Australia, scoring work for a large commercial beekeeper in New South Wales.
All the while he planned to return to Hawaii, but Mr Lauberts said two rejections for another US visa devastated him.
"I decided to stay in Australia,” he said.
"Sun, surf and bees, all right here.”
Armed with a permanent 457 visa, Mr Lauberts found work with Condamine Apiaries near Warwick and settled in a small cottage in Wheatvale.
He worked hard and in his own time began to build his own collection of hives, before breaking free and starting his own company, Fat Bee Honey, with wife Inta in 2014.
Today his hives total 450 despite several devastating setbacks.
"I lost hives in the floods,” he said.
"I lost even more in bushfires. It's been three steps forward and two steps back.”
Always up for a challenge, Mr Lauberts set his sights on producing the unique and potent jellybush manuka honey.
Extremely high in antibiotic properties, the highly sought-after honey can sell at prices up to $400 a kilogram.
Native to Australia and New Zealand, manuka jellybush plants are of the tea tree variety and grow in sandy, well-draining places along the Australian coastline.
"Firstly finding the jellybush plants and then getting the bees to produce the honey is extremely difficult,” Mr Lauberts said.
"So I went searching and got lucky. I found the plants on private properties and in national parks.”
Mr Lauberts said he placed 100 hives and in his first season hit the jackpot.
"But this honey is so thick, it's like a jelly,” he said.
"We didn't know how we were going to extract it.
"I loaned some money, bought some equipment and got to work.
"Most beekeepers stay away from this type of honey because it's too hard but I like that - I'll do it.”
The next season Mr Lauberts went back with 200 hives.
"Two months went by,” he said.
"And there was nothing, not even a teaspoon. The bees simply didn't produce.”
Mr Lauberts quickly pulled his hives and relocated them to the Border Ranges to produce bush honey and ensure an income.
"Even so, I'm now focused 100% on jellybush honey,” he said.
"I'm letting my bees rest over winter, priming them for August when I'll be placing all 450 hives in search of hitting that jackpot again. The idea is to work smarter, produce less but at a much higher value.
"This will be our third season and fingers crossed it's a bumper.”
"It's looking good but until the honey is in the drum there's hard work ahead.
"Come back and see me in October and we'll see if my gamble paid off.”