Cyclone damage shows New Zealand’s beekeepers are unprepared for climate change

Two months after a cyclone swept away thousands of beehives in the fertile fruit bowl of New Zealand’s North Island and left thousands more unreachable, beekeepers are facing a painful and costly recovery that has prompted questions of how they will adapt to the intensifying climate crisis.

When Cyclone Gabrielle roared across the North Island in February, killing 11 people and wreaking billions of dollars in damage, it tore apart the orchards and vineyards of Hawke’s Bay and the East Coast – where pip fruit, kiwifruit and wine are export earners – and destroyed 5,000 to 6,000 of the beehives that pollinate them. It represented “severity and damage that … has not been experienced in a generation”, the prime minister, Chris Hipkins, said.

The storm came just a fortnight after record floods in Auckland, and followed declarations from insurers that 2022 had been the most costly on record for climate-related weather claims in New Zealand, a country that has 15,000km of coastline and is vulnerable to rising and heating seas. As the cyclone cleanup began, beekeepers said the disaster had underscored the need for more climate planning.

A truck stranded on a road covered with debris near Wairoa on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island
A truck stranded on a road covered with debris near Wairoa on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island after Cyclone Gabrielle. Thousands of beehives remain unreachable. Photograph: New Zealand defence force/AFP/Getty Images

“We can’t just carry on doing what we’ve done before and hoping things will be OK,” says Barry Foster, an East Coast beekeeper who has been coordinating recovery efforts. “Climate change is here and it’s going to get more intense and worse.”

The sector has not “really had that sort of discussion”, Foster says, adding it would have to be facilitated across primary industries because beekeepers rely on farm and orchard land to host their hives.

Honey represented less than 1% of New Zealand’s export products in the year to June 2022 – earning $453m in revenue – but its footprint is larger than sales. Beekeeping sustains the country’s horticulture sector, and honey – particularly the indigenous mānuka type – has had outsized marketing and tourism appeal abroad.

A honey bee collecting pollen from New Zealand mānuka flowers
A honey bee collecting pollen from New Zealand mānuka flowers. The country is famous for its mānuka honey. Photograph: Christopher Wood/Alamy

The hives wrecked in the cyclone were a small number of the about 650,000 to 750,000 across New Zealand, and towering stockpiles of honey that grew during the past two years of the pandemic prevented the cyclone from denting supply for now. But beekeepers say the full scale of the damage is not known yet and their fates are closely tied to those of orchardists who use their hives for pollination.

Thousands of hives in remote areas remain unreachable, with dozens of roads and bridges in the region impassable. Some beekeepers in Hawke’s Bay are facing six-hour drives to check beehives 50km away, while others say their hives would take days to reach.

“We’ll probably know the number of hives lost in a year’s time,” says David Hills, the secretary of Beekeepers Hawke’s Bay. “So many of these rural roads just don’t have access and actually getting around some of those farms where the beehives are may not be possible until maybe October or November next year.”

That poses threats – both to the bees, which need to be fed after a harsh winter and an unproductive summer, and from diseases like varroa mite and American foul brood, which are destructive if not treated.

The final straw

The ministry for primary industries announced last month that the sector body Apiculture New Zealand would distribute $250,000 in funding to affected beekeepers to tackle biosecurity risks. The grants can be used for fuel, equipment hire and additional wages needed to assist in the recovery and retrieval of damaged gear and hives – but not to replace destroyed hives, or for the cost of disease treatments.

Beekeepers welcomed the funding, but say it will only help those with access to their hives, or who still have hives to clear up. Some beehives had simply vanished during the storm; others were found kilometres away, buried under silt.

Civil defence funding was offered by the government after the disaster, but it only covers salaries and wages. No further recovery funds have been announced for the sector.

A farmer looks out over his land, which was scarred by slips and landslides during Cyclone Gabrielle
A farmer looks over his land, scarred by slips and landslides during Cyclone Gabrielle. Beekeepers rely on farmers for land to host their hives. Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

“Most beekeepers don’t have insurance on bees because most people can’t get that,” says Lars Janson, chief executive of Melita Honey in Hawke’s Bay, who lost nearly 768 hives in the cyclone. The company has plenty of honey stocked and its exports will not be affected, he says.

But beekeepers in the region say they know of others for whom Cyclone Gabrielle was the final straw.

“Some people had been leaving the industry already, because it has been pretty tough,” says Karin Kos, chief executive of Apiculture New Zealand. “Most definitely for some of those beekeepers in affected areas, there will be commercial decisions made that it’s probably time for them to leave the industry.”

Some beekeepers say that vying for available land to place hives on has become such a hot contest that a cooling of the industry was welcome – but the fact it has been prompted in part by a savage natural disaster was not.

“It truly hasn’t been easy for beekeepers over the past two or three years, particularly if you don’t own a brand,” says Janson. “We do need some of the young guys that have got into the industry over the last few years who are good beekeepers to remain, otherwise it’s not good for us in the long term.”


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