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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

In the Wake of Disaster

The impact of Cyclone Gabrielle on New Zealand, February 12-14, was catastrophic and a national state of emergency was declared. Naturally, many beekeepers and their businesses were caught up in the carnage. The destruction included entire businesses as honey extraction and storage sheds, thousands of hives, beekeeper’s homes, vehicles and belongings met disaster. We survey the damage up and down the east coast of the North Island and ask, where to from here?

Some of the immediate impacts of a natural disaster of Cyclone Gabrielle’s magnitude are obvious – the apple bin come to rest on the Comvita shed roof in Napier tells a story, the hives strewn along the nearby beach, or washed up against fences all over the district and in Tairāwhiti, a landslide forcing through an extraction shed wall in the Coromandel – but the full effects on any industry are impossible to measure, especially just weeks from disaster striking. The initial destruction, apparent to all, will soon be enlarged by the troubles that ongoing disrupted operating conditions and hardship bring to both beekeepers, beekeeping business and others who rely on the apiculture industry for food production and pollination.

Disaster and a national emergency strike the Hawke’s Bay as the cities of Napier and Hastings feel the brunt of Cyclone Gabrielle.

Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) holds many of those beekeepers among their membership and, around a fortnight on from the cyclone hitting New Zealand, chief executive Karin Kos says their efforts have involved helping organise immediate assistance to both members and non-members, while also working on plans to keep help coming.

“We’ve been trying to coordinate support through the government agencies and make sure that the government's listening to our industry,” Kos says.

That has involved helping get sugar feed supplies and varroa treatments into areas where access is difficult.

Defining the impact of Gabrielle, including mapping estimated hive losses so the information can be passed on to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in the hope of making financial assistance available to beekeepers, is another key task ApiNZ is undertaking. They estimate hive losses at 5000-6000, mostly on the Hawke’s Bay plains where many hives had recently been moved to for overwintering, following a largely unproductive honey season in the interior of the island.

“A week before the cyclone hit, a lot of people had brought hives back down from the high country because there was no mānuka this season,” explains Beekeepers Hawke’s Bay club president Graham Heaven.

“Down the road from where my son lives there were 400 hives which had been placed in a hive dump site only a week earlier. I went down to check them out and now there is not a hive to be seen. 400 hives gone, and I mean gone, nothing to be seen.”

The extraction and storage shed of Jacob’s Well Honey in the Coromandel has copped a landslide, just one of many instances of beekeeping sheds suffering extensive damage in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle

A Snapshot of Damage

Among those beekeeping operations whose hives suffered such a fate were the Melita Honey hives of the New Zealand Honey Group.

“A lot of our hives are on winter sites, close to rivers, and in some cases, on Regional Council land, we're right next to the rivers,” CEO Lars Janson says.

“We knew we would have lost a certain amount of sites, but it wasn’t until a few days later before we realised that, actually, there's at least 700 that we've lost, and counting.”

He expects that number to reach around 1000 of their 6500 hives, to go along with six flooded shipping containers of supers stored on Links Road in Napier.

“That's basically all contaminated. We'll have to burn all that and we don't have insurance on any gear that’s not at our main base in Hastings,” Janson says.

It’s a significant loss of hiveware and honey bee colonies for Melita, but Janson’s thoughts also go to other beekeepers who have lost larger proportions of their operations and hence he is working with ApiNZ and MPI to ensure support for beekeepers.

“I don't want to say we are that heavily impacted because, from an industry perspective, my main concerns are for those that are in a worse boat than us and that is a lot of the smaller guys that we operate alongside. They're just local beekeepers, that we know and we work closely with, that have lost huge chunks of their business. Some have lost a couple of 100 Hives out of 600 – that's a third of the business,” Janson says.

Mud covering the floor inside Ivan and Irma Steenhuis’ honey shed following a landslide.

It's far from just the hive losses that is bringing the hurt to beekeepers though, with tales such as the damage to Melita’s storage containers or silt riddled sheds and homes emerging. Among the most astounding is the damage caused to Comvita Honey’s Hastings offices, storage and extraction plant, plus a house for staff accommodation.

“The shed is about five metres tall and we had the level of flooding that meant that water went over the top of the building and also submerged the house as well. At this point, we're working through our insurance process,” Comvita chief operations officer Tracy Brown says.

Along with CEO David Banfield, Brown visited the Hastings site on February 20 and says it is likely a write-off.

“The level of impact is catastrophic. It's completely inoperable, and will be inoperable for the next while. At the moment it's still under a level of sludge and water which is about knee deep and it's quite hazardous to actually access. It became quite clear as we walked through the buildings that they've been submerged. Everything inside has been impacted as well and we're looking at quite a significant disruption to our Hawke's Bay branch.”

Comvita are now looking for a temporary location to base their operations out of in the region, and are slowly returning to business as usual to conclude the honey harvest. The honey extraction runs which were planned for the Hastings site have been redirected to Comvita’s central extraction site. Staff welfare has been the primary concern of Comvita, Brown says, and the four who were living on site are now in alternative accommodation.

“I think our team on the ground at Hawke's Bay, led by Ethan Paulsen our branch manager, has been amazing, but it has been quite stressful for them with a lot of long hours. It's been extremely challenging for anyone who has been impacted by this weather event. To experience flooding that might come up to your knees and then to find out that the place that you go to work, and the place where you actually live, has been completely submerged, is difficult to comprehend,” Brown says.

Beehives and fruit bins – both washed away in the wake of Cyclone Gabrielle in the Hawke’s Bay.

Someone who experience that first hand was Jonty Moffett, owner of Flanders and Moffett, a 1600 hive beekeeping operation based between Hastings and Napier. Moffett spent a hectic morning of February 14 taking to Landcruiser and then jet-ski as flood waters rose and he attempted to ensure the safety of his family, RSE horticulture workers and horses, as detailed in As the Waters Rise.

The Moffett family would end up waiting out the flooding in the attic of their house, which is now a write-off, while a shed full of honey supers has been contaminated and numerous vehicles damaged, along with considerable harm to their orchards and horticulture business including cool store and processing plant.

Further north, Coromandel beekeeper Irma and Ivan Steenhuis’ Jacob’s Well Honey business is another to suffered at the hands of Cyclone Gabrielle after a landslide caved in a wall of their extraction shed.

“We’ve got no honey this season, the bees are getting hungry and so far we have only extracted about 120 kilos, then we have a landslide crush the carport and buckle the end wall,” Irma Steenhuis describes their predicament.

Hives discarded by flood waters up against shelter belts and fences have become somewhat common sites along much of the east coast of the North Island since cyclone struck February 12-14.

“We might be able to get one more lot of honey off the hives, but with the roads damaged we are struggling to get to some places. We can’t afford to employ anyone and my husband needs an operation for a health issue. It will have to wait until winter time.”

Adding to their difficulties, a small kiwifruit orchard they own suffered sever frost this season, reducing its crop significantly.

“We’ve just heard from the insurance company that they will only pay for removal of about two metres of landslide around the shed, the rest we will have to remove ourselves. I would love to know if we can access any financial help with that. Everything seems to be set up to support farmers and growers,” Steenhuis says.

What Now?

With stories like those emerging, it begs the question – what will be left behind, both of beekeeping businesses and beekeepers?

“The cost of hive loss is irrelevant in comparison to the destruction of entire business models,” warns Nick Taylor, general manager of New Zealand Beeswax, who have contacted many of their North Island beekeeping clients in the wake of the disaster.

“Every other disaster I have seen in this industry, hives have been lost in certain areas but not entire operations. This time it’s whole business models lost and that is the scary bit.”

While initial reactions have been to ensure the immediate safety of people, as the weeks wear on and thinking turns to business recovery, there needs to be support provided to all businesses hard hit, not least beekeepers, Taylor believes.

Vehicles were among the many items of property that could not survive Cyclone Gabrielle.

“Having lived through the Canterbury earthquakes, the adrenalin wears off and it is a dark place that replaces it,” he says.

While ApiNZ might still be in the midst of immediate crisis response, the long-term implications on beekeeping businesses and beekeeper health is something they are aware of, Kos says.

“It's been a tough couple of seasons and then to have this happen on top of all of it, that's really tough. It's really hard and it does concern me how people are going to fare. They've got to get through the immediate needs, but then, longer term, I think it's going to have some big, far-reaching impacts,” Kos says.

“Beekeepers, as part of the primary sector, are going to need support through this, financial support. So that is the big reason why I've been trying to put the economics and figures together, such as hive losses, so we can go to government with a compelling story.”

Part of that lobbying will be stressing the impact of beekeepers' struggles on horticulture. So, ApiNZ are working with Horticulture New Zealand in their appeal to government. At The New Zealand Honey Group, Janson can see a serious need for government support to beekeepers, especially small and medium sized commercials.

“There's been a glut of honey on the market in the past year, which means sales are down for these guys. Their cash flow was at rock bottom as it was and now they've lost almost everything. My push is to get support, not really for ourselves, but support for these guys to help them continue. If all these guys fold or decide to exit the industry the impact will be for not just our own industry, but for horticulture. Hawke's Bay has got so many orchards and so much fruit that needs pollinating,” Janson says.

While beehives may be brought in from out of the region to fill pollination contracts come spring, Janson believes the passive pollination provided by apiaries nearby to orchards, but not in paid contract, has been significant up until this point. With hive numbers now reduced in the region, growers could see the effects.

Melita Honey had six shipping containers of honey supers washed away. Anything that has been recovered comes with a thick layer of silt.

“Without hives, if all those guys exit the industry, then the pollination is going to be an issue for the horticultural sector and it's going to be an issue for us on production of honey, meaning prices are going to spike and drop all the time. The impacts are quite large. So, a little bit of a longer-term view to making sure that these guys get support when they need it is required

“If MPI can step up and find a pathway for these guys to get through, even if it’s just some sort of support to be able to get them through to the next season, where they can then have the ability to produce some revenue again. It won't save them all, but it's going to save some of them. If we don't do anything, to support the smaller beekeeping companies now to get them through, then that’s where the issue is going to be,” Janson implores.

For some beekeepers it is probably already too late.

“I have spoken to a lot of people who are not going back into beekeeping. They are totally disillusioned about it,” Heaven says.

The club president has lost 100 of 120 hives he had in the flood plain, but is aware other people are worse off. A discussion he had in the week following disaster drove it home that beekeepers, while they might have their troubles, are just one group severely affected by a disaster which has killed, made homeless and destroyed businesses across a wide range of walks of life and industries.

“I was speaking to a kiwifruit grower client this morning,” Heaven relays. “They said, ‘no worries about the lack of hives, we haven’t any bloody kiwifruit trees left alive anyway!’”

The fences of Hawke’s Bay display what has gone before.


Controlled Burn

For those beekeepers of the Hawke’s Bay who have had hives destroyed and who wish to burn damaged hiveware, Lars Janson is organising a community burn pit – in conjunction with the AFB Management Agency and taking appropriate measures to prevent spread of honey bee diseases. Registered beekeepers in the area should have received an email with details, but for further info Lars can be contacted via email:


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