Gretchen completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Sydney. During her university days, on the way to a lecture, she spotted a swarm of bees. With the knowledge gleaned from her mum, she collected the swarm and soon had a small apiary established on the verandah of her Cousin Frank’s house. Her interest in science and thirst for knowledge was strong, teaching herself many skills in beekeeping. This drive and her practical way of approaching problems and challenges have continued to this day, and the Australian beekeeping industry can be grateful for this passion.
As the little apiary in Roseville expanded, Gretchen began to relocate hives to family property in that region. Gretchen purchased a house in Newport in 1963, commuting between Sydney and the Hawkesbury, and later from St Ives where she lived with her Aunt for a time. She developed interests in commercial queen rearing and honey bee breeding that were to become the focus of her life’s work in apiculture, running parallel to her practical interest in horticulture which also continues to this day. A measure of Gretchen’s studied approach to horticulture can be gauged by her enrollment in 1960 at the Sydney Technical College where she graduated with a Diploma of Agriculture.
By the mid 1970s, Gretchen was well established as a leading supplier of untested queens to the industry and the export market. Two of her markets were Iran and Afghanistan. She was invited to visit both countries in the mid 1970s. On her arrival her hosts were shocked that Gretchen was a woman. No doubt she made a continuing impression on the beekeepers she met on her trip. In Afghanistan she travelled around on the back of a motor bike. In Australia and overseas, her attention to detail, quality, and customer service were to become known and respected. Her interest in bee breeding had also progressed to the point of acquiring AI equipment and the task of learning the technique, so her aspirations as a breeder would be fulfilled.
In 1976, the Queensland Agricultural College, responding to the initiative of Graham Kleinschmidt, senior lecturer in apiculture, and John Guilfoyle, sponsored a bee breeding school at the college under the tutelage of Professor Jersey Woyke of Poland and Dr Vern Sisson of the USA. Gretchen played an important part in this exercise, both as an assistant to Graham and the tutors, and as a contributor to the outcome of discussion which created the pathways by which was achieved the establishment of Commonwealth quarantine facilities for honeybees at Wallgrove, Sydney, and the conduct of a research project at the Hawkesbury Agricultural College (HAC), the aim of which was to establish a honeybee improvement program for Australian beekeepers.
During this period, Gretchen’s sustained efforts (through the Sydney Metropolitan Branch of the Commercial Apiarists’ Association of NSW) in relation to these programs was pivotal to their implementation. For many years, Gretchen served on the HAC honeybee improvement advisory committee, and provided technical services including AI for the duration of the project. The research project was funded by the statutory Honey Research Committee.
In 1977 the world-renowned German geneticist and bee breeding scientist Professor Frederich Ruttner visited Australia and met Gretchen. At the time Professor Ruttner was the leader of the Institute for Beekeeping at the Oberusel University at Frankfurt. Impressed by Gretchen’s ability and attention to detail, he invited Gretchen to enrol at the Institute for advanced tuition in bee breeding, including AI technique.
In July 1978, Gretchen arrived at the Oberusel University where she met for the first time Professor Ruttner’s research assistant, Mathilde (Tilly) Kuhnert. They developed a strong friendship and professional bond as colleagues, which later resulted in the delivery of considerably benefit to Australian beekeeping.
It was also in 1978 that Gretchen purchased her Richmond property, on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, just outside of town, and close to the Hawkesbury Agricultural College (now the University of Western Sydney). Assisted by Frank, Gretchen continued her vocation as a large commercial producer of queen bees. She established new premises on the property, which included a start of the art laboratory, specially adapted for the artificial insemination of queen bees, a facility and service provided by Gretchen that has been in considerable demand by beekeepers interested in breeding, researchers, the University of Western Sydney, overseas colleagues and clients, constantly since that time.
Following the purchase of the Richmond property, Gretchen developed a substantial horticultural enterprise on the property. Her pecan tree plantation was established in 1978 along with her special horticultural interest, the many hundreds of varieties of “old fashioned” roses.
At the end of the 1980s, Gretchen decided to close down her queen rearing business in order to concentrate on the horticulture enterprise and to maintain her involvement in bee breeding and research. Her vision for an Australian bee breeding and research facility, sponsored by the industry as an institution, and geared to the systematic genetic improvement of stock, was never very far from the surface.
In 1981 she became centrally involved in a Summer School in bee breeding at the HAC. She was responsible for bringing to Australia, European lecturers to the school in the persons of Dr V Maul, Dr H Pechacker, and Tilly Kuhnert, all distinguished professionals in their respective fields, and whom Gretchen had met or worked with during her time at Oberusel in Germany. She made her laboratory available for the school and her home as a meeting place.
An outcome of the school was that it brought together some of the world’s leading experts in bee breeding with Australian counterparts and researchers, resulting in an exchange of information and ideas, and cooperation between them for many years. For example, a young Robin Moritz, today a renowned German geneticist, was brought to the HAC by the Department of Agriculture NSW, to participate in a workshop. Robin had been working on honeybee population genetics in Germany and was able to make a significant contribution to discussion with Australian counterparts that eventually led to the establishment of the research project at HAC to test the feasibility of a honeybee improvement program in Australia, based on closed population breeding principles. During this period, Gretchen visited European bee breeding institutions on several occasions, to expand her knowledge, and to bring back to Australia ideas and information which could assist bee breeding in Australia.