He does not own a beehive, never has, and instead grows peonies for a living, but beekeepers would do well to listen closely when Ian Fletcher speaks on both days of the Mini-Conference in Taupo on August 21-22. Patrick Dawkins of Apiarist's Advocate reports.

Ian Fletcher's knowledge of overseas markets and biosecurity has seen him become a valued advisory to the apiculture industry in recent years.

Fletcher's impressive resume includes working as director of the Government Communications Security Bureau, for the United Nations in Kosovo, as chief executive of the UK Patent Office, for the European Commission as a free trade negotiator, and in Australia in a key biosecurity role for the Queensland government.

After a well-travelled career in top diplomatic roles Fletcher now calls the Wairarapa home, and growing peony roses his main line of work.

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It is a far-cry from the offices he has held throughout his working life, but advising the apiculture industry puts to use some of the knowledge gained in the varying roles he has held.

"I am not a beekeeper and don't pretend to be," Fletcher is keen to point out.

"I work with them behind the scenes though."

His introduction to apiculture came with a chance meeting of a New Zealand Beekeeping Inc. (NZBI) member in 2017, who recommended he advise the industry group, particularly around changes to the mānuka honey export standard which were being discussed at the time.

He continues to advise NZBI and has since taken up a similar role with the Mānuka Honey Appellation Society as they attempt to gain certification of the term "mānuka honey" for New Zealand producers in international markets.

Despite some economic struggles, the industry on the whole is in a very healthy place Fletcher believes, and the debate that sometimes takes place within New Zealand apiculture is the sign of a "mature" industry.

"It is interesting to come to an industry, many decades into my professional life, where I can generally look you in the eye and say, 'there is no group-think here'. People think for themselves and are cheerfully willing to debate and disagree. That is a really healthy thing. Nobody assumes they know the answer and nobody is let off the obligation of thinking for themselves."

It is an interesting viewpoint from someone with a long background in bureaucratic roles, as fractures within the industry have led to criticism from bureaucrats, including the Minister for Agriculture, in the past.

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"The industry is more united than you think," Fletcher said.

"Einstein said, 'it is much more important to really understand the question than to know the answer'. That is the point I would make about beekeepers, they are prepared to debate the question and not just the answer."

"Saying, 'what's the question?' is a healthy sign of an industry that has diversity of thought and confidence to be able to have debates like that."

Ian Fletcher, adviser to the apiculture industry and speaking on both days of the NZBI Mini-Conference in Taupō. Photo / Supplied
Ian Fletcher, adviser to the apiculture industry and speaking on both days of the NZBI Mini-Conference in Taupō. Photo / Supplied

Ian Fletcher's schedule at the New Zealand Beekeeping Inc. Mini-Conference, August 22 - 23:

Day 1: Honey

Fletcher's talks at the Mini-Conference are sure to raise questions and provide some, but far from all, the answers.

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On day one, Friday August 21, his presentation will focus on how Kiwi beekeepers can get the best value for their honey in international markets. The former trade negotiator says that talk will centre on the premise that, "if honey is sold simply as a product to smear on toast then the price of that honey is a function of the price of sugar and your economic future is determined by the very large scale, low cost, farmers of sugar in Brazil".

"Mānuka is the only honey in the world that has consistently managed to break free of the price of sugar. How do we learn from that to create a framework to take other honeys through and repeat the experience? Going from, 'golly we have had a stroke of luck', to 'we have a system'."

His presentation will take the audience's minds back to 1855 and Bordeaux, France where the winegrowers developed a taste-based classification system which is still enforced. Honey producers can learn from that, with Fletcher stressing, "if you write the rules, you have the edge".

Day 2: Biosecurity

On the second day of the conference Fletcher's time at the stand will focus on ways to improve biosecurity for beekeeping and New Zealand, with a focus on the economics of biosecurity. It is a discussion that, again, poses some key questions.

"If you invest a lot of money in biosecurity, so it is successful and there are no incursions, does that mean you should spend, less, the same, or more?" Fletcher asks.

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Governments tend to spend less if there have been no significant incursions and that can lead to problems.

"You end up with a system which is thinned out. It becomes token. Then it becomes dangerous because it gives you false comfort. As an industry we should be arguing for the government to do more and provide a more robust defence," Fletcher says.

People are willing to invest more in an industry that has a robust biosecurity programme, with Fletcher asking, "how much would you be willing to pay for a hive if you knew you only had one year before a foreign bee disease destroyed it?" Compared to, "how much you would be willing to pay if you knew you had at least 10 years of safe operating".

Those are just some of the queries that the former "spy chief", trade negotiator and biosecurity boss will raise in Taupō, and that inquisitive attitude is what Fletcher wants to promote in the industry he advises.

"Beekeepers might be struggling economically at the moment, but their voice is not lost and that is a great achievement," he says, adding "the industry should be proud of the social ethos and spirit of inquiry it has created".

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

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