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  • David Cramp

Volcanic Eruptions, Tsunamis and the Volunteer Beekeeper

Carterton beekeeper David Cramp’s three-decade long career in apiculture, in both keeping bees and publishing, has taken him around the globe. British by birth, he studied apiculture in Wales, before taking up commercial beekeeping roles in Spain and, more recently, New Zealand. However, now semi-retired, it is volunteer work in the Pacific Islands which has most recently captivated him – building and rebuilding beekeeping communities despite the horrors, to both people and bees, brought about by volcanic eruption and tsunami.

By David Cramp

Before he returned with a ‘bee vac’ to vacuum up swarms with, collection of Tonga’s wild bee populations was hard, hot and messy work for volunteer David Cramp, as witnessed at this Tongan primary school. Photos: Supplied

Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) is very much a New Zealand icon, and is a great example of New Zealand soft power operating for mutual benefit in the Pacific. VSA teams with partner organisations in many of the island groups and effectively answers their requests for help according to needs.

An island ministry for example may need the assistance of a water engineer, or a veterinary assistant, or a public health organisation may need the help of an early childhood nurse, and once a suitable assignment has been agreed, VSA will recruit suitably experienced volunteers to meet the task. VSA provides the volunteer with flights to and from location, medical insurance, decent accommodation, and a living allowance based on local prices. Volunteers don’t lose out financially, (but you don’t save much either!). VSA assigned me to Tonga in January 2020, the Cook Islands in May 2022 and Tonga again in September 2022 until Christmas.

My assignments started in 2020 when a climate change NGO, “OHAI Inc” ( in the Kingdom of Tonga requested an experienced beekeeper to re-establish community beekeeping in the Kingdom. VSA recruited me to help. After a series of interviews in which the author of a recent article in the Advocate (Frank Lindsay) played a part, I headed off in January that year.

Tonga 2020 and a Super-bee?

There are many colonies of honey bees in Tonga – mainly the feisty Northern European dark bee, but they all lived in walls and ceilings of houses, schools and other buildings and, for many years, haven’t been managed, except by one or two beekeepers. Previous attempts at managing them usually fell apart when disease was introduced from New Zealand in the ‘80s and ‘90s and again in 2015 when some queens were imported from New Zealand.

Both Varroa destructor and American foulbrood (AFB) exist but, whereas varroa is not a danger and treatment is not required, AFB is its usual killer self – but rare. Investigation into the cause of destructor’s failure to harm the bees was researched by an Australian university in 2015, but no conclusion has yet been reached. I have asked the team if they could resume the research, because who knows?... Tonga may have a super bee! This of course raises the question of banning imports of bees from elsewhere and I took a lot of time persuading people not to do so and to take bio-security seriously. If the current stock is genetically diluted before its anti-varroa abilities are researched, then who knows what we may have missed?

David Cramp extols the virtues of beekeeping to some young Cook Islanders at a job fair – all part of the diverse range of tasks undertaken during his beekeeping visit with Volunteer Services Abroad.

As for AFB in Tonga, its rarity may perhaps be because of the natural distribution of unmanaged colonies throughout the islands which makes infection less likely. If this theory is correct, I had to bear that in mind while setting up managed, more crowded, beekeeping sites.

I had to hit the ground running on first arrival in Tonga 2020 and, with a local colleague and a staff member from Ohai, we raided houses (including the Queen’s palace) and ripped out walls and ceilings, cut out the colonies and put them into hives and hoped for the best - with many failures. This was how it had always been done before. It was hot, sticky and painful work and wasn’t an ideal way of doing things. I vowed to overhaul the method and make it not only 100% successful, but far less stressful for the bees and the beekeeper.

David Cramp goes through some beekeeping basics with Cook Island locals on the island of Mauke in May 2022.

Building a Tongan Beekeeping Community

At the same time, I was tasked with training 30 beekeepers from scratch. Beekeeping equipment and the trainer (me) were provided by New Zealand and all other training costs by Australia. So, we all hoped for a bright future – not of multi-hive, industrial-scale beekeeping, but small-scale community-based set-ups to provide income for beekeepers from hive product sales and a much-needed paid pollination service for local growers.

Within seven weeks we built hive numbers up to around 30, trained 30 beekeepers, and then Covid hit and all aid workers were pulled out, preventing me from overhauling the bee removal methods and building further. Seeds had been sown though and with follow up Zoom hive inspections and telephone advice over the next two years, the project prospered until the whole lot got blown up by the volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami in January 2022.

With no flowers (ash covered), many colonies starved (few colonies had extensive stores for reasons discussed below), while the human population were too busy surviving to tend to them. By the time Tonga opened up again in September 2022 and I was able to return, there were just two hived colonies left. One of them had AFB (I burned it), and the other had a barren queen and was failing rapidly.

Hive numbers needed building and this time I was better prepared… I had designed and built a bee vac!

Cook Islands 2022

But before my return to Tonga in September 2022, I was assigned in May for three months to the Cook Islands to work with the Ministry of Agriculture on invigorating community beekeeping, training new beekeepers, and upskilling existing ones. I was also tasked with writing both a manual of beekeeping in the Cook Islands, and Cook Island National Beekeeping Standards to be put into legislation. The Cooks are a wonderful place to keep bees. No varroa, (and I never saw any AFB) and with feisty dark bees, but I did find some calm, yellow Italians in a tree trunk on Mauke Island.

Seeing the rhythm of beekeeping in another tropical island group where the bees don’t conform to our norm, and confirming the different bee ‘seasonal rhythm’ in my mind was great learning, and writing it all down in a manual was a useful exercise because beekeepers there only ever read beekeeping manuals referring to temperate zones. Until beekeepers recognise the different tempo and annual flow, it is difficult to run bees there.

An example being, with flowering all year round, the bees have no need to store great quantities of honey at any one time, and managing this adaptation is the key to island beekeeping and honey production. If the bees produce four or five frames of honey, don’t wait for them to fill the box because you can go back in a couple of weeks’ time and it’s all gone. They eat it and start again because there are always more food sources available to them. This was a common occurrence in both Tonga and the Cooks.

Drones exist all year round as well and it is common to find queen cells in what we would call winter. I have also moved a frame of brood and eggs in ‘winter’ or the dry season (same winter months as here) so that the bees could produce a mated queen – and it worked. But despite these differences, the bees have not yet entirely forgotten their old seasons. Rapid build-up and swarming still occurs in the months we would call spring as the wet season begins. Drone production increases at this time and drops off somewhat in winter. As for feeding sugar, unless you’ve made a split, or hived a swarm, and fancy giving a little sugar as a boost, there is rarely any need.

The Cook Islands assignment also included representation at school job fairs, radio and TV talks and advisory visits on demand to rural beekeepers. It went well and, after a three week break back in New Zealand, I headed back to Tonga in September for a three-fold task…

Tonga Take Two - 2022

Once again OHAI received funding, this time for the re-establishment of managed bees, training for 10 female farmers, and publication of a manual entitled “Food for Bees. A Guide for Gardeners, Beekeepers and Farmers in Tonga”. So, my days were filled with house raids for bee colonies and the evenings in writing the book and preparing a training course.

One of my main tasks was encouraging beekeepers to start again. They were devasted by the volcanic damage to their homes, farms, bee colonies, food and water supply, and communication with the outside world. Their spirits were low. It was hard work, physically and mentally, and only on Sundays was I able to take a break, and that only because it is forbidden to work on Sundays.

Overall, the work is hot, hard, very hands on, and full of mosquitos. Relief occasionally came in the form of invitations to the NZ High Commission festivities, which provided a nice diversion every now and again.

Bee Vac to the Fore

Using the Bee Vac, removing colonies from walls and ceilings became a much easier, calmer affair, with few if any aggressive bees. It worked a treat, and, although it was still hot work (29 degrees and 75%+ humidity), over long hours, we were pleased with the results.

Of the 25 colonies we established in the short time I was there, all of them thrived, and of course having now been trained in using the bee vac, the local beekeepers have continued to expand the colony numbers since my departure. And that really is what it’s all about. Training local people so they can do it all on their own without further help. Otherwise, what’s the point? And, that training isn’t just about beekeeping. It’s also about production and marketing of hive products, pollination, biodiversity and ecosystem management, cyclone management (I had initially forgotten about volcanoes and tsunamis), pesticide use, and the importance of local solitary bee species and other pollinators. Many of my audience were growers, not just beekeepers. This training was accomplished both in the classroom and in the field and the students eagerly absorbed as much knowledge as they could in the time available.

Having said they can now do it on their own, there will always be room in future for a VSA beekeeper to return to the Islands to teach advanced beekeeping – queen rearing, AFB recognition, different hive splitting methods (I taught them simple, walk away splits – which all worked), and more bio-security work.

Also, as the ten lady farmers for whom training was supposed to be provided couldn’t be found during my time there, they still need training by someone (when found). I can assure you that any beekeeper giving their knowledge and experience to the island people, will learn as much from them, as they do from you. It’s definitely a two-way flow of knowledge and learning.

And an improved model ‘super bee vac’ is now in trials!


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