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AGILLAR, Cyprus – For Cyprus beekeepers Soteris Antoniou and Kutret Balci, the imported Caucasian queen bee just doesn't have what it takes.
Despite its reputation as copious honey producer, they say the widely used bee simply can't cope with their island's long, scorching summer 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 — defying 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.
Their partnership is flourishing just as 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.
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. Their efforts have won a 10,000 euro ($11,025) prize from Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the easy Jet founder whose family hails from Cyprus.
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 along a U.N.-controlled buffer zone after nearly three decades of virtually no contact between Greeks and Turks. But their connection goes back even further.
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 family's 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 — producing 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 islandwide. They also are seeking foreign buyers for propolis, a wax-like product bees produce to shore up hives, which has a reputation for its medicinal and therapeutic benefits.
Both Antoniou and Balci are unabashedly boastful about the quality of their organic honey. Despite the island's lack of rain, the Cypriot sunshine is a blessing, because it infuses everything that grows with an intense aroma that is 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. Disappointment over four decades of peace accords 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.
Antoniou is skeptical, saying the decades of deadlock have calcified conditions. But he still holds out hope of a deal 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," Balci said.