At the heart of Polynesia there’s a lonely jutting atoll called Niue, and in the heart of Niue there’s a man who can charm the honey from bees.
Andy Cory is a Kiwi from Cambridge who answered an advert for the sale of the Niue Honey Company in 1999 and who can now fill a 44-gallon drum a day with a truly unique product.
While showing me how to extract the sweet stuff from each hand-crafted frame packed with dripping honeycomb, Andy described a business booming with potential. Apart from the sales to tourists and the swarm of export markets that flew off the back of two gold medals and an international best in show at the 2016 UK Honey Awards (not to mention the rather surprising accolade of the Medal of the Ukraine), there’s also an upcoming product tie-in with celebrity Kiwi chef Peter Gordon and a hat-full of sales and marketing plans.
Yup, this buzzing shed heaving with 1960s cast iron machinery and honey-drunk bees is an absolute hive of industry – and only set to grow.
But as well as being a business success, the Niue Honey Company is also at the heart of a truly remarkable ecological success story. Thanks largely to Niue’s remoteness (nearest neighbours include Tonga 600km west, Samoa 550km north and the Cook Islands about 1000km south-east), the island’s bees have evolved far away from the horrors of colony collapse disorder, varroa mites and pesticide sprays that are blighting the rest of the world and which have created an existential threat to this vital link in the food chain.
And so, Andy tells me, there’s plans to make Niue a global bee sanctuary; an ark set in the warm silvery seas of the South Pacific where bees untouched by industrial chemicals or disease can be bred to help restock colonies in Europe and America where mortality rates have reached cataclysmic proportions.
It just might be that tiny Niue can offer a solution to a mighty agricultural problem, thanks to Andy’s ability to mix a pretty business-savvy brain with a love for the natural world and a keen desire to help a small island community thrive.
This mix of industry, social conscience and ecology is often regarded with a deep distrust – as if cash is somehow the sworn enemy of the natural world and those who seek financial success must somehow be intent on upsetting environmental balance. We see it most plainly on Waiheke in the monthly battle played out in the published lists of planning consents, perceived by many as a constantly unravelling disaster movie in which nature must give way to the march of concrete and steel.
But our island is also home to many who would happily carve prosperous careers out of innovative green activism – and surely their champion must be Sir Rob Fenwick.
Sir Rob has this week penned an exceptional and utterly moving essay in the New Zealand Listener in which he describes how he has “danced with cancer” for five years and is now “facing extinction”. But even at this most traumatic time of his life, the man who in 2015 received the Blake Medal as “New Zealand’s foremost statesman of sustainability and the environment” and was then knighted the following year for “significant contributions to New Zealand’s sustainable development, wildlife protection, waste minimisation, environmental science and Antarctica, and iwi development” chose to use his words to urge New Zealanders to act to save the environment.
“Time is running out for me, and it is with profound sadness that I consider that time is running out, too, for our precious environment,” he wrote. “Although my doctor has exhausted all the options, we as a nation have not exhausted ours when it comes to saving these species. This is a crisis. Time is running out for the treasures of nature that we love, and it is worth using every last breath, all of our collective energy, to save our land and secure our future.”
In his Listener article, the 68-year-old linked to leadership and founding roles as varied as Landcare Research, Living Earth compost, Predator Free NZ, the NZ Business Council for Sustainable Development and Te Matuku Oysters eulogised an ancient pūriri on his Waiheke property as an example of how we must all work towards preserving the ecosystems and lifecycles that make not just this island, but the whole world tick.
He spoke on much the same topic when Gulf News interviewed him in 2015 and he explained how Predator Free NZ came from his desire to provide a structure in which the toil of disparate conservation groups could be recognised and streamlined to a singular purpose. It’s no overstatement to say that pretty much every stoat trap, tracking station and rat baiting line you see around Waiheke today comes from Sir Rob’s business-savvy approach to environmentalism.
The key message from that 2015 interview with Sir Rob and his wife Jenny at their Te Matuku Bay home, though, was one that also echoed in the application I watched from Andy in his Niue honey house – and it’s a salient reminder that all of us are able to turn our hands to make a positive contribution.
“You’ve got to make a conscious effort in life to find rewarding work.” • James Belfield