• Patrick Dawkins

Beekeepers' Logistical Nightmare

For beekeepers flooding damage can range from apiaries disappearing in a flash, to silt-laden hives, or washouts and landslides causing land access issues, but what if road closure wasn’t temporary and what if it cut you off from 90 percent of your hives? That is the situation facing Marlborough Sounds beekeepers Robert and Sabine Harper at Sherrington Honey who are living a “logistical nightmare” and having to spend thousands of dollars a week on barge access just to reach their hives, get in supplies and transport honey for sale.

There’s no doubt about it, the place the Harpers call home would be the envy of most people, however the usually tranquil lifestyle of the Marlborough Sounds has been replaced with an ongoing battle to access more than 1500 of Sherrington Honey’s 1700 hives since the region received once-in-a-century flooding on July 24-25.

Robert Harper in more stress-free times. The owner of Sherrington Honey has lost road access to the vast majority of his 1700 Marlborough Sounds beehives.

Rob Harper has called the Ohinetaha Bay in the Mahau Sound home for 40 years and says it was the worst rain event he has seen.

“One of the old residents down here recorded 431mm on Friday and Saturday combined and then another 32mm on the Sunday,” Harper says.

Road access linking the Sherrington Honey base to the outer Marlborough Sounds to the north and east and also the nearest towns to the south and west was cut off following the downpours and resulting slips. While access has been partially restored to the mainland of the South Island and the towns of Linkwater, Havelock, Picton and Blenheim, the wonderfully scenic yet windy and slip-prone Kenepuru Road remains closed indefinitely. A landslide and massive rock block the road four kilometres further down the Sounds, at Te Mahia Bay. Beyond that, at least 1500 Sherrington Honey hives are situated over the usual two hour drive to the end of the Sounds and require the usual spring management to prevent starvation and maintain hive health.

The landslip and rock which blocks road access to almost all of Sherrington Honey’s hives.

“Our operation is effectively cut in half with this road closure with the beehives on one side and our equipment on the other side,” Harper says.

A Mayoral relief fund is partially funding barge transport for residents of the Kenepuru Road, of which there are several hundred. Sherrington Honey are using the barge to transport their work trucks past “the rock”, as they have dubbed the landslip, and also to get supplies in and out on their heavy vehicle. This is coming at not only significant cost to the business – at $180 per vehicle each way, and $160 per water taxi for staff – but also significant stress due to the logistical challenges and uncertainty of when the road might reopen.

“We take as much gear across as we can, but when we need to refill, such as sugar syrup and trailers, we have to bring everything back here to our base on the barge. It’s a logistical nightmare and an ongoing cost,” Harper says.

It is not just getting to hives that is proving a challenge either, but also getting in supplies like the two or three tonnes of sugar required each week in spring, and then also taking a truck load of honey to town. Those sorts of missions usually require barging of their heavy truck to Havelock as well as Harper walking, biking, hitchhiking or phoning for a ride to get between home and the truck parked-up at the marina between water crossings.

It's been a case of "on ya bike" to reach one Sherrington Honey apiary this spring.

Sherrington Honey has three staff members, along with the husband and wife owners. To get to one site their head beekeeper was given a backpack of varroa treatments and a bicycle which they set off on to get the job done.

With queen rearing season just around the corner the logistical challenges will intensify as they try to find enough accessible cell-raiser hives and then come up with a plan to transport incubated queen cells.

Although they have applied for some flood relief funding, they have yet to receive any monies and are unaware of any significant support packages. While financial relief is not in sight, neither is a practical solution to fixing the Kenepuru Road with Marlborough Roads stating they cannot provide an estimate of when it might be open and that residents are “facing a long period of disrupted access”.

“You can’t plan ahead because you don’t know how long this is going for. We might do things completely differently if we know we are going to be still dealing with this in six months’ time. We’ve heard everything from three months out to two years and nobody seems to know,” Harper says.

The isolation, disruptions and hardship the road closure is putting on people is starting to take its toll and the Harpers say, while their local councillor has been helpful, they feel like council staff are simply not listening.

“The big thing is just the lack of information. We still don’t have anything coming out of Marlborough Roads as to when they will start work. Or when it will be opened at least to one lane. Out here we feel really let down by Marlborough Roads and nobody is giving us any indication.”

While the challenges will keep coming as the weather warms and the bees become more active, a fortuitously-timed purchase of a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle has provided some comfort to Harper.

“It has already paid for itself,” he says, adding “a barge is next on the wish list".

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