Beekeeping and Business Balance on the Chathams
In the competitive honey market, Chatham Islands beekeepers Francesca Bonventre and Kaai Silbery have built a brand and a product with a difference, and not just because of its point of origin in the remote islands. Go Wild Apiary’s freeze-dried honey has captured media attention since its launch in 2018, and even won the Honey Based Food Item category at Apiculture New Zealand’s national conference in June. However, the inventive product is just one part of the couple’s growing business and what they hope is a step towards creating a more prosperous and lasting beekeeping industry on the islands.
The story of Go Wild Apiary and its founders Francesca Bonventre and Kaai Silbery on the Chatham Islands is one of innovation, but also balance, as they seek to bring a new concept and modern way of doing business to an archipelago long treasured for its isolation.
The couple have lived on the Chatham Islands since 2014 and until this year both held jobs at Hotel Chatham, a hub for much of the islands’ growing tourism industry.
The 10 islands, approximately 800km off the east coast of mainland New Zealand, were recorded as home to a population of 663, at the 2018 census.
“When we first came here Chatham Islands was marketed as ‘New Zealand as it used to be’ – 40 years behind the mainland,” Bonventre explains.
“Most of the tourists were older people who came to see how it was they lived in the older days, or people coming to hunt and fish. We are switching that up a bit though and putting more of a focus on ecotourism.”
Their small but burgeoning beekeeping operation is central to their “switching that up”, with the inventive concept of freeze-drying honey just the start.
Freeze-dried honey was the brainchild of Silbery who, when working as head chef at Hotel Chatham in 2018 sought a method of making honey produced on the Chatham Islands more appealing to her style of cooking and chefs in general.
The chef then took the honey creation to the National Hospitality Championships that year. The inventive product was well received and since then some top chefs have begun incorporating it into their menus.
While supplying restaurant trade has been instrumental in getting Go Wild’s freeze-dried honey off the ground, so too have been willing buyers amongst tourists to the islands. However, there is more than one string to the bow of the Go Wild Apiary, and the tourism market looks set to continue to play a key role in the business’s growth.
When they moved to the Chatham Islands in 2014 Silbery took up the position of head chef at Hotel Chatham, while Bonventre, from Italy and with a legal background, found a role in the offices of the hotel covering various administration and marketing tasks. Between them they played key roles in helping build a burgeoning tourism industry on the islands, Bonventre explains.
“Tourism is a new thing here and when we first arrived, tourism was not really understood. Seven years later, people are investing in tourism on the island because they now see it as a possible way to go.”
Silbery, who was born and raised on mainland New Zealand but who has Chatham Islands heritage, says many locals were, and still are, concerned about the Chathams “becoming Waiheke Island”. However, Bonventre’s background gives her a different perspective.
“Not many people wanted tourists, but for me, coming from Italy and having been brought up with tourism, I helped and supported the hotel owner who wanted to go down that direction. We have helped take the industry to where it is now. Now, it is time for our new challenge,” Bonventre says.
That has meant both have decided to give up their jobs at the hotel recently and full attention now turns to building a multi-faceted business with Go Wild.
The foundation of that business is seven hectares of land which they bought on the main Chatham Island three years ago. There, they locate Go Wild’s 20 beehives. It is a small beekeeping operation and land holding, although a neighbouring block of land offers forage on the endemic nectar producing tarahina tree (Dracophyllum arboreum), while honey is also purchased from Silbery’s uncle, Mana Cracknell and partner Michele Andersen who run a queen breeding programme on the island.
“We bought land, put beehives on it, and they are doing well. We are now learning how to manage the season, when various plants are flowering, when we need to feed them. We are learning from our mistakes, but we have opened the land up as a tourist destination, with pathways and talking points,” Bonventre says.
Go Wild Apiary’s tours give visitors an opportunity to visit the beehives, sample their honey and learn about the flora and fauna of the island, while taking in the vistas. The Chatham Islands have seen an influx of domestic tourists in the past 18 months too, due to the global pandemic limiting travel options outside of New Zealand, and so Go Wild’s tours have proven popular Bonventre says.
“The demand has been way beyond the capability of the island to host visitors from the mainland. So, it has brought an opportunity for us to be more involved in showcasing what the island has to offer. There are not many places, and no other apiaries, where visitors can be hosted and taken for a journey.”
There is plenty to tell the visitors too, not just about the story of Go Wild, but of life and beekeeping on the Chatham Islands.
The islands are seen as a refuge for honey bees, with both the small population of about 200 managed colonies, as well as the wild bee population, free of many of the pests and diseases of mainland New Zealand, including varroa destructor and American foulbrood. For that reason, Cracknell and Andersen run Amaia Ltd. The queen breeding programme on the main island has been built off the back of 40 nucleus hives of Carniolan bees imported from south of the varroa line in 2008.
Prior to that the Chatham Islands had been home to very few colonies, with the first being British black bees escaped from a visiting ship in the 1800s. Much later, attempts were made to introduce both carniolan and Italian bees in the second half of last century. That included hives introduced by the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries in the 1970s.
Since then, Amaia’s breeding programme has been – literally and figuratively – instrumental in crossbreeding the various strains of bees on the islands, using both open mating and instrumental insemination methods.
“Michele Andersen had experience in beekeeping on the mainland, so through Amaia she helped some locals who wanted to revitalise beekeeping on the island to get into it. The bees were mainly kept for the pasture … to help the farmers, so it was mainly clover honey produced,” Bonventre says.
Since then, the success of Go Wild has encouraged a new generation of beekeeper and with it they hope to set the foundations for a new industry.
Key to that industry will be gaining value for a greater range of native honey sourced on the island, such as tarahina, mingimingi and pouteretere (Leptecophylla robusta). To try to achieve this, Go Wild have been sending Chatham Islands honey to the University of Waikato’s renowned honey research lab to identify qualities that might make it more appealing to consumers.
Early reports from the university are encouraging and the research continues. In the meantime though, there is more work to be done on the islands.
Since moving to the Chatham Islands in 2014, Silbery and Bonventre say they have witnessed a changing in attitudes and ways of doing business not just around tourism, but also producing, marketing and selling produce, much of which is seafood.
With this in mind, the couple behind Go Wild hope to motivate the current collection of around a dozen beekeepers on the island into a more cohesive group, to gain added value for their produce by going beyond the island markets.
“The beekeepers who are here tend to be from the older generations, but since we have begun what we are doing we have sparked some interest from the younger generations. They are more interested in marketing, promotions, events, and that resonates more with our innovative approach,” Bonventre says.
“We are on a remote island, with disease free bees and endemic plants. So, the value of our honey can be higher,” Silbery adds.
By working with the existing beekeepers, the pair behind Go Wild believe they can source the honey required to enter new, strategically selected, markets.
“It is an exclusive destination and we want to keep our honey as exclusive. We don’t want 10,000 hives on the island and to just sell our honey to big distribution,” Silbery says.
Getting the Balance Right
While getting local beekeepers on the same page as them will be critical in furthering the ambitions of Go Wild, it is just the latest hurdle in the balancing act of life and business on the rugged and remote islands. From juggling individual careers with their own start-up, to incorporating the burgeoning tourism industry alongside those who value the island’s isolation, and then introducing fresh business and marketing tactics to well-established status quos, there has been plenty of give and take required.
“We want to create a new industry on the island that will continue on, but we want it to be something which will continue long after Fran and I are gone from this earth,” Silbery says.
“We want to leave a legacy behind and work with the community to do it.”
So far that community has been supportive of their business and concepts, from freeze-dried honey, to island tours, and now research into the native honey. The duo’s plans for the business, and their small island industry, remain ambitious.
“There are 600 on the island and we are all family and friends. We know, and we have seen it many times, that without the collaboration of the locals you can only go so far,” Silbery says.
“We believe by working together, and showing them we are working together, we can create something for future generations and they will be supportive.”