The plight of the bee
If you weren't already aware, honey bees around the world are dying at startling rates - up to 50% lost per year due to a host of causes collectively known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). These include disease, pesticides and parasites like the bee’s worst enemy, the varroa mite. And while that's obviously devastating to beekeepers and the honey industry, it poses a much larger problem. Global food supply. Bees are involved in the pollination of around a third of every mouthful of food we eat. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices - Many of the foods we consume get a helping, pollen-laden hand from bees. From apples to blueberries, from almonds to zucchini, our plates would look much emptier without our fuzzy little friends. But we're trying to ensure that never happens.
A tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, affectionately known as 'The Rock'. Niue could hold the answer to saving the world's bees. It turns out Niue's relative isolation made it a literal paradise for bees. Niue houses what are believed to be the Earth's last known sufficiently isolated disease and parasite-free Italian honey bees (Apis mellifera ligustica - the cornerstone of global pollination). These bees arrived in the 1960's from New Zealand. Well before all the bee maladies had affected them. But they nearly didn’t make it.
Andy Cory, known locally as the ‘Honeyman’, is widely considered one of the Pacific’s leading apiculturists and is a specialist in queen breeding. Andy came to Niue after spotting a postage-stamp-sized ad to be the beekeeper for some long-neglected hives. He first set foot on the island in 1999. When he saw the honey house, it was completely choked by vines and jungle. A bit of a do-up, you could say. The next step was finding the surviving hives. With a little local help, he discovered some 240 of original 1960’s hives dotted through the jungle. From the outside, things didn’t look promising. The hives were overgrown, rotten and falling apart, but upon opening them he knew he was seeing something special. The quality of the bees was absolutely fantastic. They just needed some expert care to get them flourishing again.
Over 5 years, Andy got the bees thriving. Hive numbers grew to 1600 and we set out to become certified organic. Things were looking up.
Then, in 2004, cyclone Heta struck. The whole island was defoliated by winds that raged up to 300 km an hour and enormous waves drenched any remaining vegetation in salt spray. Two thirds of the hives were lost - as well as Andy’s house. So not a great year. But protecting the bees was the priority. No trees meant no food for the bees and numbers dwindled further - one queen and around 20 bees occupied each of the surviving hives. By creating a special sugar solution, Andy kept the bees nourished until the island’s plant life could recover. Slowly, he managed to bring the numbers up and just over 15 years later, we got hive numbers up to around 3000. Little did we know at the time, just how important these bees would become. We knew they were special, we didn’t know they would potentially become the last clean, healthy Italian bee stock left in the world.
The Pacific Bee Sanctuary
Niue’s bees have effectively been in a naturally and geographically enforced quarantine but, with the help of the Niuean government, World Trade Organisation and the Standards and Trade Development Facility, we are developing an official bee sanctuary. We’re increasing biosecurity, suring up ports and borders in order to protect these special bees. Much like Norway’s Global Seed Vault, the Pacific Bee Sanctuary is the world’s insurance policy on pollinators. We’ll have the ability to breed and export pure, healthy queens and genetic bee-breeding material to help repopulate the dwindling colony numbers worldwide, while we all work on other measures to combat CCD.
Our plan is to further build up healthy bee stock on Niue then introduce these beneficial bees to other suitable islands as a back-up source.
There are a wider set of benefits that the Pacific Bee Sanctuary will bring to Niue and future island sites. Including the provision of vital livelihoods and increased agricultural productivity for Pacifc Island communities, the contribution towards native bush regeneration which helps mitigate the effects of global warming and soil degeneration. Revenue for local landowners and villages with hive rental arrangements, the provision of an alternate source of revenue for the government of Niue in order to underwrite increased biosecurity measures.
We knew the bees were special but it turns out the honey they make is incredibly special, too. A unique palate of caramel and malt, with none of the bitterness that many darker honeys have.
Niue Honey won two 1st-in-class golds and was named Best International Honey at the UK’s 85th National Honey Show - The Oscar’s of world honey. It seems happy bees living in bee paradise does good things for the taste profiles.
We only take what the bees can spare, so this precious liquid is quite limited and worth savouring. And it’s this incredible raw organic honey that will help fund the development of the Pacific Bee Sanctuary. What’s not to love?