A tiny volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean may just have the answer to the global bee die-off. Niue, which has a population of nearly 1200 and is slightly smaller than Great Barrier Island, is planning to become a global bee sanctuary, exporting the only varroa- and mite-free Italian bee stock left in the world, in an effort to save the future of food production.
The global bee stock is in poor shape. Colony collapse disorder, where swarms of bees abandon their hive, is rocking countries like the United States of America where 42 per cent of bee colonies died over the summer of 2014. Experts are putting it down to pathogen-riddled bees, poor beekeeping practices and, above all, bee exposure to a group of pesticides called neonicitinoids.
Bees are responsible for pollinating one third of what's on your plate, so, without the humble honeybee, the future of food could be in serious trouble. They also bring economic benefits to the tune of $5.1 billion in New Zealand alone, through pollination services, and the sale of bee-related products like beeswax and honey.
And it's New Zealander Andy Cory who is the driving force behind Niue's 'bee bank'. A beekeeper for more than 35 years, Cory came to Niue after spying a postage-stamp-sized ad for the sale of the Niue Honey Company. He first set foot on the island in 1999. No one met him at the airport and, getting a lift from a local to the island's only hotel, he passed the honey house. It was completely choked by vines and jungle. "If there was a plane out that afternoon I would have probably gone."
Cory persevered and, with the help of the island's original labour unit, discovered some 240 original hives dotted through the jungle that had been brought to the country in 1967. "I opened them up and the hives were all rotten and everything, but the quality of the bees in the hives was absolutely fantastic."
Settling into island life, and meeting his Spanish-Irish wife-to-be who was working on the island as a doctor, Cory got the bees humming, cranking hive numbers up to 1600 and setting out to become certified Organic.
Then, in 2004, the cyclone struck. The whole island was defoliated by winds that raged up to 300 km an hour and enormous waves drenched any remaining vegetation in salt spray. Cory's house was the first to be destroyed. No trees meant no food for the bees and two thirds of the hives were lost. Using a sweet solution from imported Tahitian sugar, Cory managed to bring the numbers up slowly and has now, just over ten years later, got hive numbers up to 1000.
The honey is one of the few fully organic certified honey suppliers to the New Zealand market, because the bees do not need to be treated for varroa mite or other parasites. "These are the last Italian stock that are veroa-free and mite-free left in the world."
The plan is to build up the stock on the island, move some bees to another island as a back-up source, and then start exporting. "I think within 50 years there's going to be 20 million people to feed and no bees, and they'll have to come and talk to us," says Cory.
The Niue Honey Company, working alongside the Niuean Government, has embarked upon a crowdsourcing campaign aiming to raise an initial $160,000. This will be used to upgrade Niuean biosecurity measures, build a new honey factory and seed fund research and development into the project.
Cory says the government's support is essential. "The bees are a Niuean asset, we run them and look after them, but the sanctuary was always going to be a Niue Honey Company and Niue Government project. We need their support, it's too big a project for us to do alone."
Although the project is still in planning stages at the moment, Cory says the way the bee situation is going, it won't be long before hives will be lining the runway destined for overseas. "I would say that we'll be flying bees out of here by the end of my lifetime."
To donate to the project, or find out more, visit the page on Indiegogo.