Honey has been a hugely significant product throughout recordable history. Exactly how long honey has been in existence is hard to say although studies show bees have been around since as far back as we can record.
Cave paintings in Spain from 7000BC show the earliest records of beekeeping, however, fossils of honeybees’ date back about 150 million years.
But why are bees so important? And what does a honey company in Niue have to do with the possible saving of the species?
Bees have a huge role to play in our eco-system and in our commercial horticultural enterprises. Most plants we need for food rely on pollination, especially by bee. These are things like kiwifruit, which is New Zealand’s largest fresh fruit export, valued at $2.3b p.a. with 545,800 tonnes of it sent overseas and apples coming in second at $829m for the NZ export market.
Niue Honey was founded by Andrew Cory – beekeeper and a genuine Kiwi bloke. Back in 1999, he purchased a beekeeping business on the beautiful island of Niue. The business had existed since the 1960s but had been trundling along. Cory purchased that along with the exclusive beekeeping rights for the island from the Niue government.
Andrew says the Niueans all thought he was a little mad.
“After seeing the excellent health quality and genetic strain of the bees – Apis mellifera ligustica (the Italian honeybee) I knew we were onto a winner.
“Niue’s climate makes it the perfect breeding ground for hives, the growth of the queen and the general high quality of the honey. The one issue would be that Niue is susceptible to storms,” he says.
To get things going, Andrew linked up with organic farming pioneer Timothy Oliver whose vision was to develop and organise source of honey for the New Zealand market and promote organic foods. The Niue Honey Company was born.
Setting up the first thing to do was get the hives up to standard and expand the hives to a commercially relevant scale.
Cory’s insight of the small island nation falling prey to the elements came true in 2004 when Cyclone Heta ravaged Niue. All the demanding work of past five years was wiped out.
The colony was down to a few hives of bees, there was no vegetation around for them to survive on.
But this is where having someone with Andrew’s expertise and ability to pivot saved the colony and the company.
He was able to provide an alternative food source for the bees through sugar and water and kept the colony alive. Since then Andrew has also developed different methods of feeding bees.
In the past 16 years Niue Honey has gone from strength to strength. Niue Honey has worked with Niue Government to ensure diligence in bio-security matters and the company started to focus on not only the export of their top-quality honey, but also establishing a de facto Bee Sanctuary in the South Pacific.
There is a possible business case to be made need for a bee sanctuary is a priority in Niue; backed by the alarming global decline in honeybee health in recent years.
This decline is often summarised by the term ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (CCD).
Additionally, with many companies committed to an industrial agricultural model, mass movements of bee stock between crops has proved another source of stress for the honeybee.
Andrew Cory has a unique way he wants to treat his bees “like the valued workers they are, rather than just the means to an end for getting honey or pollinating other products.”
Efforts were started to rebuild and from 2010 onwards Niue Honey was in a position to achieve two major milestones –first being the reinstatement of their organic certification and the second was being able to export honey to New Zealand by consistently passing regular bee disease audits undertaken by third party industry auditors.
But Niue Honey is not one to rest on its laurels. They know their honey is world class. And they had other dreams for their bees.
So, they asked Richard Duncan to join the team. He came with a strong background in international relations and partnership management and which made him the best choice to help Niue Honey establish the sanctuary.
As Richard says “Andrew deals with the bees in the hive, I deal with the Beehive (and other agencies) to ensure they know our goals, that we’re set up to be export ready and that we can get the sanctuary set up.”
PTI NZ funded the development of marketing and specially branded products for Niue Honey for the NZ market winning an award at the UK Honey Show in 2016.
“Honey is becoming such a luxury item and we’re so pleased to be able to help the honey industry of Niue become well-known in New Zealand and around the world,” says PTI NZ Trade Development Manager, Ms Aude Douyere.
Because it is bees and honey – biosecurity is a major component of the work Niue Honey does. In addition, while the climate on Niue lends itself perfectly to have hives, and the creation of more queens which equals more colonies and more honey, they also suffer from being susceptible to cyclones.
Since their first encounter in bees versus cyclone (Heta) they’ve worked diligently to figure out innovative ways to make sure the hives have alternative feeding, they’re as protected as they can be, and that there is always a sufficient stock of organic honey on-island.
In fact, most New Zealanders may not even realise that the honey they have been consuming may be from Niue.
Niue Honey has exported bulk organic certified honey to New Zealand for many years now. It gets sold to companies looking for an organic ingredient for other foods, such as bread, yoghurt or muesli.
Niue Honey has over the last year been developing its own branded and packaged product for the New Zealand market and keen foodies will take note that fusion-food pioneer Peter Gordon uses Niue Honey in his restaurants and Niue Honey and Peter Gordon will be launching catering and co-branding projects together.
While COVID-19 has, like with so many industries, halted production, it has by no means put a kibosh on what Niue Honey intends to achieve.
Richard says, “we slowed down the development of our own branded product, and we had to slow down continued hive expansion due to the travel restrictions.
“Thankfully, as there are no diseases in the bees, even after five months of inattention they are still thriving.”
Andrew Cory travelled back to Niue once lockdowns and travel exemptions were lifted and saw his bees for the first time on 25 August after five months. The bees have shown true Blue Pacific resilience, by just going about what they needed to do.
Niue Honey is an excellent example of how an industry may seem like its small, but in fact it can be exponentially impactful.
Through their bee sanctuary they will, all biosecurity requirements followed and approved, be able to replenish colonies on other Blue Pacific islands with Niue’s gentle and clean stock.
Such a strategy is critical to combat the spread of bee diseases in the Pacific through accessing bee stock from anywhere else.
With agricultural productivity and environmental protection key developmental objectives in the region, a sustainable and complementary apicultural sector will be an essential component. And should CCD ever arise in New Zealand, the Niue is also an insurance policy for retaining healthy bee stock.
The bottom line is, they’re an amazing small company, producing beautiful organic goods in an ethical way.
The ancients used to offer honey to the gods, and what Niue Honey is creating here is definitely up to standard.
Al-Jeezara found Niue Honey so interesting they made a documentary about them. (It’s a nice easy 20 min watch – so definitely check it out).