Seventeen-year-old Percy Berry (1908‒1994) grew up on a 200 acre (81ha) dairy and sheep block in Nireaha – about 10km west of Eketahuna.
In 1925, a neighbour asked Percy to collect a swarm of bees that had settled on a tree. From that chance encounter, that one swarm would multiply to the extent that Arataki Honey, which Percy Berry formed in 1944 – and celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, now has around 24,000 hives in its Hawke's Bay and Rotorua divisions and are spread throughout Hawke's Bay, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Southland and Coromandel.
Eketahuna was not the most desirable location for beekeeping – as sunshine is a bee's friend, so Percy in 1941 moved his family and bees to a less wet and windy climate in Hastings.
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His beekeeping business had not yet reached a financially sustainable stage, so he worked in the pay office at Tomoana freezing works while using every hour outside of work to build up hives to a sustainable level. As this was war time, Percy also fitted in home guard duties.
Petrol in the country areas was sold in cases containing two four gallon (15 litre) cans due to a lack of petrol pumps in these areas. The wooden box the cans came in, after a slight modification, was ideal for slotting in 10 bee frames.
Hives were initially placed at such places as the Ormond homestead at Oak Ave, Raupare and in Lawn Rd.
Percy had a workshop in Hastings, near the present Holly Bacon Company, where he constructed his hives. For every three hives he built, he would sell one to local hobbyists, or small beekeepers – and the money from this expanded his hive holdings.
By 1944 Percy had reached the stage where he could become a full-time beekeeper and needed a suitable property. The former government Arataki Research orchard in what is now Arataki Rd was purchased, and for £2000 (2019:$175,000) he was the owner of nine acres (3.6ha) of land and a house.
When son Ian joined his father after leaving school in 1946, it would prove to be a difficult year, with a bee disease wiping out many hives and a drought occurring.
There was also an issue that had begun to gather momentum from the previous year. Beehives placed in orchards for tree pollination were being destroyed by lead arsenate sprays used on blossoming apple trees to control insect pests.
This spurred Percy into action, lobbying against such sprays to the government to try get an act of parliament passed prohibiting their use.
The Hawke's Bay Fruitgrowers Association and Hawke's Bay branch of the National Beekeepers' Association, both unanimously had accepted in November 1945 a resolution to "prevent fruitgrowers from spraying with arsenate of lead before 75 per cent of blossom fall".
It was slow progress for Parliament to act, so Percy, together with other beekeepers, threatened in 1946 to pull their beehives from orchards. Pollination of trees is vital for orchards.
With Parliament moving too slowly for Percy and other beekeepers liking, they loaded up a truck with beehives taken from orchards in August 1946 and parked it outside the offices of the Hawke's Bay Herald Tribune, then in Karamu Rd, indicating the first exodus of beehives from orchards.
The Labour MP for Napier, A E Armstrong, had suggested that it wasn't the sprays – but volcanic ash from Mt Ruapehu that was killing the bees. "No", replied the Minister of Agriculture, "Investigations showed the death of bees was probably due to them absorbing lead arsenate from spray applied to fruit trees."
The legislation to prevent arsenate of lead being used before 75 per cent of the blossoms fall was proposed in 1946 to be in the form of an amendment to the Apiaries Act 1927 but appears to not have been adopted.
However, in the years to follow even this level of application of lead arsenate recommended to orchardists proved to be harmful for the bees, and beekeepers, such as Mr P G Bell of Gisborne stating in 1949 that sprays should be applied after the petal fall was complete.
DDT began to replace lead arsenate around this time.
In 1950, fruitgrowers were told to that to avoid killing bees they should spray only twice - before a tree blossoms, and after the blossoms have fallen.
However, in the Hastings District during 1950, it appeared arsenic sprays had fallen on flowering weeds beneath the trees and been transmitted to the bees, killing them.
Today there are strict rules regarding spraying near hives, crops visited by honey bees, flowering crops or weeds and budding or flowering plants.
Arataki Honey now places around 6000 hives into Hawke's Bay orchards and 7000 hives in Bay of Plenty Kiwi fruit orchards every spring.
Arthur Simmonds & Co in Hastings gave assistance to Percy to purchase beekeeping equipment he couldn't make himself from them by setting up a bank overdraft facility for Arataki Honey and guaranteeing it to £500.
During World War II part of the honey crop was commandeered for the armed forces, although it was paid for. Percy in 1944 had 131 hives and could have the production of only 19 of them. The quantity of honey that the government expected him to supply was 30 lbs (13.6 kg) per beehive.
After World War II, low prices and droughts made business difficult, together with more beekeeping businesses being started by from returned servicemen. Percy would expand Arataki Honey through consolidation by eventually buying out around six small beekeeping businesses started by these ex-soldiers.
Realising his business in the 1950s was exposed to wholesale groceries, bakers and tobacco manufacturers he sold to, Percy began dealing directly with retailers to spread his risk.
At this time, no one could export honey – it all went through the Internal Marketing Division (later transferred to the New Zealand Honey Marketing Authority in 1953). Percy believed there was waste and inefficiency in this organisation, so he lobbied hard over the years and played a part in successfully ending the Honey Marketing Authority's monopoly in 1983. Percy and others were then free to export honey around the world.
In the 1950s, Percy bought out two beekeeping units in South Waikato, of which another son, Russell, would take charge of, and is now the Rotorua division.
Today, Arataki Honey has the fourth generation of the family working in the business and has around 110 staff. They place hives in hundreds of farms and orchard properties, which forms the valuable service of pollination.
Arataki Honey is presently one of the largest beekeepers in the southern hemisphere and has over 1.5 billion bees hard at work making honey.
Apart from selling its own production the company buys in large quantities from other beekeepers for processing, packing and distribution to the New Zealand retail market.
Arataki Honey is now the market leader and commands a 32 per cent share of total sales on supermarket shelves. It exports to China, USA, Japan, Singapore, Australia and Hong Kong.
To celebrate their 75th anniversary, Arataki Honey has created a new visitor experience display created by fourth generation family member, Nat Berry, and I have to say it is well worth seeing – and young children would especially enjoy it.
Do you know more about the past history of orchard spraying in regarding bees? Please contact me if you do.
Michael Fowler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is contract history researcher and writer.