From international honey sales to increased sanitisation in the workplace, the impact of the global pandemic has been far-reaching in New Zealand apiculture. Caught up in the effects of Covid-19 are a large portion of New Zealand's migrant beekeepers, with many forced to spend a winter away from their homeland and families, or risk being unable to return to their jobs.

Among New Zealand's beekeepers are husbands, fathers, sons and sole breadwinners with families relying on the pay generated from their tending to bees a world away.

Like many of New Zealand's primary industries, apiculture relies on a migrant workforce, a large number of whom travel from the Philippines in spring, work through the summer months and return to their homeland when the beekeeping season winds down over winter.

However, this year uncertainty around flights and border restrictions meant travel was either not possible, too expensive, or too risky to undertake.

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Exact numbers of migrant beekeepers in New Zealand are difficult to ascertain, but in many commercial operations Filipinos make up the majority of the beekeeping workforce, many employed on seasonal contracts.

Early in the national lockdown, discussions were held regarding migrant workers who could not be repatriated and how to best keep them in employment - without much success.

Conversations had taken place with various government departments in an attempt to offer migrant workers greater freedom to shift between jobs, Apiculture New Zealand chief executive Karin Kos said.

"We approached MBIE (Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment) to see if there was some way to support migrant beekeepers who were unable to leave New Zealand and their work ran out. Recently Immigration NZ introduced some changes including relaxing visa conditions for those working in essential services. Some beekeeping businesses have reported migrant workers making contact to ask about work opportunities, but that Immigration NZ processing times for visa changes have been slow," Kos said.

Discussions with employers revealed the number of beekeepers facing an unexpected winter in New Zealand varied greatly between operations.

Some seasonal contracts were completed prior to lockdown and beekeepers were able to return to their homeland, while in other businesses work continued through lockdown and now many foreign beekeepers remain in the country.

At Tweeddale's Honey in Taihape, 18 seasonal Filipino workers, who would normally return home between May and July, remain on staff.

"It is difficult finding work for them," owner Don Tweeddale said.

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"We are doing a lot of maintenance work which we need to catch up on. Hopefully, that will get us through the winter, and we have some mānuka properties which we are tidying up as well."

Some of the staff had also been kept busy with late-season extraction, but that was expected to wrap up in early June. With 18 extra sets of hands to utilise, Tweeddale said the work may run out at some point in July.

"It is a bit of a financial pain, but we will try to manage our way through because hopefully it is a one-off thing."

Tweeddale's Honey had received the Covid-19 wage subsidy from the Government to help ease the burden of carrying extra staff through winter, and hoped to remain eligible in the coming months.

Among the beekeepers at the central North Island operation, known for its distinctive green hives, is Edward Suan, a team-leader who calls the Occidental province in the Philippines home.

Like many of the Filipino workforce in New Zealand, Suan is the sole breadwinner for his family, sending much of his pay back home to his wife and two children, aged 7 and 1.

Suan had not seen his family in person since August last year, when his daughter was just over 3 months old.

"I am missing them a lot," Suan said.

Edward Suan with his young family in the Philippines who he will be separated from this winter. Photo / Supplied
Edward Suan with his young family in the Philippines who he will be separated from this winter. Photo / Supplied

"I wish Covid-19 was not here any more and I could go home for a holiday."

He had been travelling to New Zealand to work for the last seven beekeeping seasons and would usually return home for several months, starting in May or June.

This year flights were very limited and, even if borders were open, migrant workers risked being locked out of New Zealand and unable to return to their jobs when they needed to in spring.

"I don't know if they [New Zealand immigration] will accept us when we return here, and I need this job to support my family," Suan said.

Travel home for many migrants was also risky due to increased stopovers in potential Covid-19 hotspots.

"There would be a problem travelling, especially with a connecting flight. I don't want to contract the virus. So, I will stay here to protect myself and my family," Suan said.

Even if migrant Filipino workers can find a way home, their time with family would be limited, with mandatory two-week quarantines in both New Zealand and the Philippines likely.

Right now Suan, like many others, had to content himself with regular communications with family via the internet.

The Tweeddale's Honey team leader was permitted an early finish to the season in autumn 2019, to be on hand for the birth of his second child in the Philippines.

Now, a little over a year later he will probably not see his family in person again until Christmas at the earliest, or winter 2021, a span of at least 18 months.

"We are hoping by Christmas time that some who want to go back and see their families will be able to if the lockdown has reduced," Tweeddale said.

"It is two and half to three weeks off, but we are also very busy, so not everyone goes back in a normal year. It is usually just some who wish to see their families, who have small kids, but not the whole 18."

An extension to their time off work at that point in the beekeeping season was very difficult to manage, the Tweeddale's Honey owner said.

"It is right in the crunch time of the whole operation. We are harvesting honey, putting boxes on, extracting. It is all go at that time."

For Suan, Christmas and winter 2021 are a long way off. However, while he has paid work, the situation holds a silver lining, despite separation from his family.

"I can't touch or hold them, but I am providing what they need. I am happy and they are happy," he said, adding, "Right now, I can't hug them though."

- This article was first published in Apiarist's Advocate beekeeping eMagazine, subscribe for free at www.apiaristsadvocate.com.