AGILLAR, Cyprus — For Cyprus beekeepers Soteris Antoniou and Kutret Balci, the Caucasian queen bee just doesn’t have what it takes.
Despite its reputation as copious honey producer, they say the widely used imported bee simply can’t cope with their island’s long, scorching summer months and tends to die off in the heat.
That’s why the two men, one of Greek and the other Turkish heritage, resolved to breed a Cypriot queen bee in a venture that defies their Mediterranean homeland’s ethnic divide, the north-south split brought on by a 1974 Turkish invasion in response to a military coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece.
Both their product and their partnership are flourishing at a time when the island’s Greek Cypriot president and the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots are set to carry on reconciliation talks in Switzerland next week.
Officials said the success of the five days of meetings could determine whether an accord is within reach or not.
An optimist might find a hopeful sign in the beekeepers’ humming collaboration; separated by barbed wire and mistrust for decades, they are working together to find a homegrown solution to a shared problem rather than rely on an imported model ill-suited to the history and climate in Cyprus.
Their efforts have garnered the duo a 10,000 euro ($11,025) prize from Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the easy Jet founder whose family hails from Cyprus and who has been investing in Greek and Turkish Cypriot business ventures for eight years.
So far, Antoniou and Balci say, their indigenous bee-breeding work has produced encouraging results.
They have transplanted larvae from the diminishing population of Cypriot queen bees into a custom-built hive to create a bigger, hardier bee that they hope will better cope with the climate and produce more honey.
“A Cypriot bee is best for Cyprus,” said Balci’s cousin Metin, who helps with the business.
The friendship between Antoniou and Balci blossomed after 2003, when crossing points opened across a United Nations-controlled buffer zone after nearly three decades of virtually no contact between Greeks and Turks.
But their connection precedes the period when politics and war conspired to keep the island’s two communities apart.
As a young man fresh out of high school in 1961, Antoniou learned beekeeping’s trade secrets from Balci’s grandfather Mustaka, who established a successful honey business in 1918.
The Balci surname — it’s Turkish for “beekeeper” — attests to the heritage. After the ethnic split, Antoniou’s family relocated to a town in the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south.
With 750 hives in the breakaway north, Kutret Balci produces an average of 25 tons of honey a year for the local Turkish Cypriot market. He also exports to Britain, where there is a large Cypriot expatriate community.
But drought has cut steeply into his bees’ output this year; they have produced nearly one-third less honey than last year.
Antoniou’s smaller operation of 250 hives produces an average six tons of honey each year and only supplies communities in the island’s southeastern tip. He and Balci eventually want to join their honey supplies in hopes of marketing it island-wide.
They also are seeking foreign buyers for his propolis, a wax-like product bees produce to shore up hives and which has a reputation for its medicinal and therapeutic benefits.
Both Antoniou and Balci are unabashedly boastful about the quality of their honey, which they say is 100 percent organically grown.
Despite the lack of rain, the Cypriot sunshine is a blessing because it infuses everything that grows with an intense aroma that’s transferred to the honey, they say.
“We have the sun, we have the good weather, so if we have rain, we have the best honey,” Antoniou says.
Antoniou and Balci may agree on the superiority of their honey, but they don’t see eye-to-eye on whether the island’s leaders will be able to thrash out a reunification deal next week.
Disappointment over four decades of peace accords forged elsewhere and then rejected by Cypriots has jaded many.
The main issue President Nicos Anastasiades and the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, Mustafa Akinci, will tackle in Switzerland is how much territory Greek and Turkish Cypriots each would administer under an envisioned federation.
A potential agreement would determine how many Greek Cypriots would be able to reclaim homes and property lost in the war.
The United Nations special adviser on Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, said a peace deal has never been closer. Greek Cypriot voters rejected a finalized accord in 2004, but Eide said that plan was drafted by U.N. officials, not Cypriots themselves.
This time around, it’s the Cypriot leaders who are cobbling together the deal, just like Balci and Antoniou are joining forces to make better bees.
Antoniou is skeptical, saying the decades of deadlock have calcified conditions perhaps irretrievably.
But he still holds out hope a deal can be struck that would enable him to bring his beehives back to the fields where he grew up. Balci is much more upbeat that a deal is in the offing.
“I’m very positive they will find a way to resolve it,” he said.
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