Bay of Plenty Times
‘Serious state’: The sting in the tail of Gabrielle
Food warnings after bees and beekeepers hit hard by cyclone
A“challenging” beekeeping season has disrupted normal honey flows, with the latest cyclones compromising access to an estimated 10,000 Bay of Plenty beehives, threatening the ability to manage bee health, and raising biosecurity risks.
One Bay of Plenty beekeeper says the industry is in a “serious state”, and not being able to access hives meant bees could die, leaving the country potentially facing a food shortage due to the key role bees play in the food chain as a pollinator.
One Te Puke beekeeper was left “cuddling” wet and cold bees to keep them alive after losing more than a dozen hives in the storm.
A spokeswoman from Apiculture New Zealand said beekeepers in Coromandel and the Bay of Plenty had been impacted, with the cyclone affecting an estimated 10,000 hives.
“Access to hive sites has been compromised for many, with road closures and off-road tracks blocked by fallen trees or becoming unstable. . . . It has been a challenging season for beekeepers with weather events disrupting normal honey flows.”
The harvest was likely to be well down on average.
According to Apiculture NZ, there were 56 beekeeping businesses (those with 250-plus hives) in the Bay of Plenty, which made up 12 per cent of New Zealand beekeeping businesses.
Beekeepers played an important part in the local kiwifruit industry by providing pollination services but the economic value was not quantified.
A New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc spokesman said there had not been an issue this season.
“We had poor bud break, which meant that there was a lack of flowers to pollinate. And the wet weather came when the fruit was already growing, i.e. pollinated.”
The importance of bees
Russell Berry has had one job for more than 70 years — beekeeping.
“I started beekeeping when I was
7, and now I am 80.”
Russell Berry is the owner of Rotorua’s Arataki Honey on State Highway 5 in Waiotapu, alongside his wife Annette Berry. Together, they look after about 15,000 hives across the Bay of Plenty, Coromandel and Gore.
Their son Mark Berry was the operations manager and their daughter Tracey Berry was a lab technician.
“It’s a family business, always has been.”
The story of Arataki Honey began in 1944 when Russell Berry’s father — Percy Berry — bought nine acres on Arataki Rd in Havelock North and registered 131 hives to Arataki Apiaries Ltd with his late son Ian Berry.
“He was the best beekeeper in New Zealand,” Russell Berry said. Bees are all Russell has known. He left school at 15 and landed a job marketing honey, calling about 350 shops a month. At age 17, he came to Waiotapu and built the bee business.
They opened the iconic tea room and honey house Benny Bee more than 50 years ago.
By the time he was 18, Berry ran 3000 beehives.
Bees were “very important” to the region’s economy, he said.
They were sending a truckload of their bees to Canada, along with about seven million other bees on an airline pallet, to make more than 700 beehives to be used for pollinating canola, he said.
“There is an example of how important it is to have bees.”
Berry said it had been a “terrible season” and the beekeeping industry was in a “very serious state”.
“We have had an awful lot of rain. I can’t remember ever having this much rain.”
And of course, he said, bees relied on flowers, warm soil temperatures and sunshine.
Then there was the severe frost last year. In December, Rural Communities Minister Damien O’connor declared a medium-scale adverse event for the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regions.
Flooding this year meant beekeepers in Coromandel had difficulty accessing beehives, and when hives are not fed correctly, bees die, he said.
“Pollination is the future of beekeeping. You have got to have bees for pollination.”
No bees meant we could rapidly end up with a food shortage, he said.
“New Zealand is relying on apiculture . . . beehives pollinate kiwifruit orchards, apples, pip and stone fruit, blueberries.”
Berry said he believed the bad weather meant the North Island’s honey crop this year would be less than half of the normal average of 35 kilograms.
“Some will have zero honey crop.” That was why beekeepers spread their hives across different regions and climates, he said.
“Gore has produced three times as much honey per hive than anywhere else. That means we can keep supplying the supermarkets.”
Inflation had also meant compliance costs had gone up “astronomically”, including the cost to send
Maree was just cuddling them. We had kilos of bees, and some of them just went down to a couple of handfuls. Maree was trying to save them. Craig Lovell, Bee First Apiaries
honey overseas and testing honey.
“You name it, it is going up”. Russell said many beekeepers were losing money because of the high costs. “When you have compliance costs more than double, combined with very poor weather conditions, that is a major problem.”
During the “ma¯nuka boom”, many looked at apiculture as a “get rich quick” opportunity, he said. But with honey prices coming down, “those people are now going broke”.
What Berry loved most about the industry was the “joy of the challenge”.
And he has been in the industry long enough to know how to tackle any challenge that comes his way.
From ‘kilos’ of bees to just handfuls
Ask Craig Lovell what he loves about apiculture and his answer is simple: “It’s the bees.”
That love rang true when Cyclone Gabrielle washed away some of their Te Puke hives and left his partner Maree Paynter “cuddling” the wet and cold bees to keep them alive.
Lovell and Maree Paynter from Bee First Apiaries Ltd lost more than a dozen hives after the cyclone, and “kilos” of bees went down to just handfuls.
Lovell said it was nothing compared to the devastation in cyclone-hit Hawke’s Bay, but a lot of the slash that came down off the hills built up around his hives and pushed them down the paddock, washing away two pallets.
“One of them we didn’t find.” The other one had been pushed over several wire fences and was found in the neighbour’s farm, he said.
“It was just annihilated and in pieces.”
Lovell said some of their hives were found full of silt, and unfortunately, many bees did not survive.
“We salvaged about 32 of 48 hives. The rest we had to put in the bonfire. It was just messy.”
Some of the bees had huddled at the top of the hives and survived but they were wet and cold, he said. Paynter was warming them up with her hands.
“Maree was just cuddling them. We had kilos of bees, and some of them just went down to a couple of handfuls. Maree was trying to save them.
“We brought quite a few home and nursed them here so we could look after them.”
Lovell said his love for bees began when he did an introductory course at primary school in Taranaki.
“It captivated me.”
In September 2000, he bought his first colony, and “one hive was the gateway drug” to buying more colonies. By 2003, he had built up the colonies through pollination to a few hundred hives.
In 2011, Lovell became a commercial beekeeper.
“From there, the rest is history. We have just grown bigger and bigger.”
Bee First Apiaries Ltd in Whakama¯rama was now “peaked out” with about 800 hives.
Lovell and Paynter were the main beekeepers doing pollination and honey cropping, with the help of their two boys aged 10 and 11, and one other worker during the spring.
From about the third week of July, they will start feeding rounds in the hives.
Lovell said the bees would eat about 500kg to 600kg of sugar syrup a day.
“They will store it as honey and that will be their winter food,” he said. “As colonies increase, so does the feeding size.”
He said they were slowly rebuilding the colonies, getting ready for kiwifruit pollination through late November and December.
“The bees are eating as fast as we are feeding them at the moment. There has been no notable honey crop this year to speak of, but sometimes that is just the way it goes.”
They are constantly cleaning hives, checking for diseases and making sure the bees are not going to swarm.
They had about 200 hives locally and the rest were spread across the region, including in Nga¯ ruawa¯ hia and Huntly, with their furthermost hives just north of Tokoroa.
“There is a lot of driving.”
But Lovell doesn’t mind it. Lovell and Paynter are giving people the chance to be the beekeeper this month as part of the Flavours of Plenty festival from March 24 to April 2.
Participants will don beekeeping suits, get up close and personal with the bees and spin their own honey.
“We just thought it would be cool to show people what we do and how we do it.”
Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) corporate services team director Bruce Arnold said a wet season combined with extreme weather events, such as Cyclone Gabrielle, has contributed to challenges facing beekeepers.
MPI was working with APINZ to determine the best way to support affected beekeepers, for example, through the $4m rural community recovery fund announced in February. Arnold said MPI provides services to New Zealand food processing businesses to help manage risks to human and animal health from the production and processing of animal products, including honey.
“This includes verification to ensure that operators have appropriate systems, processes, and documentation (such as risk management programmes) to effectively identify and manage food safety risks.
“Recovering costs, for example through the export bee levy, is important to ensure those who use government services for commercial or private benefit pay for those services.”
MPI generally reviews expenditure and revenue at least once every three years. Following consultation in 2021, MPI adjusted the export bee levy from $1,005.70 to $2,566.08 per annum. While the domestic bee levy decreased from $471.80 to $431.08.
Arnold said this was to ensure MPI was able to continue providing services to the exporters of bee products, such as sampling and testing of residues.
“MPI is able to work with individual companies to meet the payment of levies, including payment plans.”
Comvita posts record revenue
Meanwhile, Bay of Plenty honey exporter Comvita has announced a record revenue of $112 million for the six months to December.
Comvita’s revenue increased by 6.8 per cent in the six months ending December 31, while its operating profit increased by 60.9 per cent to $11.6m.
Group chief executive David Banfield said it was now the sixth consecutive reporting period where the company had delivered doubledigit earnings growth in line with or ahead of guidance.
“Last year was the second-highest profit in the company’s history,” he said.
Banfield said it was on track to deliver its 2025 target of $50m in earnings.
“We see good momentum in the business.”
Its Experience Comvita tourist attraction in Paengaroa has been permanently closed since the company made 90 staff redundant as part of a restructuring last year.