Taking care of bees-ness

Taking care of bees-ness

Our Pollinators In Chief are under threat (see yesterday's Herald story). So what are we doing about protecting this flying national treasure and source of more than just something we spread on our bread? David Paterson shares the buzz.

There is something comfortable about bees. Before mountains Sir Ed Hillary’s life revolved around his family’s hives. There is also that resonating summer sound of happiness that bees bring.

But there is more to this insect’s contribution and portfolio than just noise and honey. Bees pollinate a substantial share of the food we eat and single wingedly fuel an industry of alternative medicine where honey and other bee secretions promise to heal everything from blisters to impotence.

In the words of probably our leading bee researcher, Plant and Food Research’s Dr Mark Goodwin: “No honey bees spell no horticulture.”

Fact of the matter is the European/Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a critical element in our economy. Depending on whose figures are used the bee makes a contribution of about $3.5 to $5 billion to our economy, far in excess of the $80 or so million it earns from exports of honey.

The fluidity of these figures points to one symptom of a problem in that only ‘guesstimates’ are made as to the economic place and space these little fellows inhabit. Already the feral (i.e. unmanaged population) has been decimated with the full consequences and implications not known. The urgency in which stakeholders are urging the Government to play a much more active role to protect and keep the industry viable shows there is cause for worry.

The two organisations representing beekeepers—National Beekeepers Association NBA) and Federated Farmers Bees—have begun campaigns to bring home to people and the Government just how critical their industry is.

Says the NBA: “New Zealand is more reliant on honey bees for pollination in the agricultural sector than most other countries. The primary focus in the first instance should be the survival and health of the honey bee. This is not only because honey bees have an irreplaceable role in our agriculture but also because they are already showing declines and problems. In this country there are no alternative non-Apis pollinators that can entirely replace the efficiency, effectiveness and manageability of the honey bee for the current level of production required in agriculture.”

NBA’s ‘bottom line’ in the actions needed was articulated in a recent submission to Parliament. Their requirements include:
• ensuring “robust” biosecurity measures are in place including resisting efforts by Australia to access our markets with its honey that might carry potential diseased honey;
• providing beekeepers with adequate support to develop Varroa mite (Public enemy Number 1) tolerance for hives;
• reviewing and possibly overhauling the admixture of legislation governing the use of pesticides. (The industry wants tighter regulations to prevent bees inadvertently, but usually fatally, being sprayed. In particular beekeepers want a complete rethink on the use of neonicotinoid family of pesticides used in New Zealand but increasingly being banned overseas;
• preserving and extending flora on which bees feed;
• bringing home to New Zealanders the absolute importance of the industry.

The irony is that the highest profile by-product of what bees ‘do’—honey—is almost a by-product, albeit an important one, of the bee industry. Pollination is where they really make their mark. Plants that produce about one third of everything we eat and a significant, but unseen, element in primary exports of orchard fruits, many berries, kiwifruit, avocadoes come into being thanks to bees. Bees also pollinate a large range of vegetables to produce seed for export, such as big earners including carrots, onions and squash. Add to that list pumpkin, melons and greenhouse tomatoes (some of which are also pollinated by bumble bees).

Another plus to add to the mix is that bees are environmentally friendly and don’t have much of a carbon footprint—just as well since the numbers are huge. At the start of 2011 there were 3,251 registered beekeepers, 23,395 apiaries and 388,369 beehives in the country. To give an indication of population size hives can have colonies of about 30,000 to 60,000 bees.


The mood of the industry, year in and out, bordered on the bucolic until a sinister force appeared on our shores in April 2000. Seemingly out of the blue the Varroa mite was found in a number of hives on a single property in South Auckland. Nine relatively short years later the whole country was playing host to this most unwanted pest.

When the first incursions were discovered the industry had great expectations that an eradication process could solve the problem. Containment was another possibility but by 2009, MAF (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry) could see no solution and accepted Varroa as a fait accompli.

Varroa is said to have originated in eastern Asia and then spread into Europe. Since the 1980s, the mite and blight has been carried into most other beekeeping regions of the world, killing hundreds of thousands of colonies. For about 40 years, New Zealand biosecurity kept the problem at bay but lost the battle.

While growers have been able to cope with Varroa, at a cost of $40 and more per hive for pesticides, the threat to viable production still looms as the mite builds a resistance to the chemicals used in their destruction.

To add insult to further injury another contained pest managed to trespass into our key Kiwifruit production areas in the form of Pseudomonas syringae pv actinidiae (Psa). And another potential bee killer looms on the horizon—in many parts of Australia—in the form of European Foul Brood (EFB). Honey and honey products are banned imports from Australia but Western Australia wants New Zealand recognition that it is free of EFB and therefore open to exporting. In a reversal of the battle of our apple exports going to Australia, the pressure is on to defend our shores from their pests.

EFB is not a hugely major problem for beekeepers—but becomes so when the major way of treatment via antibiotics is banned in this country. It can also become more lethal for hives under stress.

Ironically, intensive pasture farming is also causing concern in the bee industry. In the South Island, particularly Canterbury, the growth of dairy farming has led to large areas of scrub and weed clearance which formerly provided a variety of flora for beekeepers. To a lesser extent this is happening in other dairy areas where the returns on milk are now a major incentive resulting in production increases. Blackberry and clover, once the source of much of the traditional clover honey, is declining on many farms leading to what Federated Farmers Bees Industry Group John Hartnell, calls the “green desert” effect.

The opposite is happening is in places like Coromandel and Northland where quite large areas of scrubby country have an abundance of Manuka—the source of the honey which has been found to have significant antibacterial effects and other claims that have yet to be fully substantiated. Among the industry this ‘honey rush’ has been labeled as ‘gold fever’.

John Hawthorne, a consultant in the alternative medicines field, believes this is where the icing for the industry could come. He cites the example of a face cream, which contains bee venom and acts like Botox clearing away wrinkles, as just one possible bonanza. The fact the Duchess of Cambridge used it prior to her marriage hasn’t gone unnoticed. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, bee venom is being processed into a powder for a blue pill that the makers say will rival Viagra.

In short, they may be small but the economic and other punch they bring shows the power of the bees.

Beekeepers rightfully ask for more support to maintain the critical role their charges play in our economy. But they are not lying down in the fight against, in particular, Verroa. With the physical and financial support of Great Mercury Island owners Sir Michael Fay and David Richwhite, a programme to breed resistant/tolerant queen bees is off to a flying start. Later this year, bees from this project will be trialed in a commercial environment to see how they perform.

Sinister CCD
One potential problem is an outbreak of Colony Collapse Disorder, (CCD) a sinister condition in which worker bees do not return to the hive leaving the queen bee and her brood to die. In the USA CCD is a major problem. Here it is difficult to get factual evidence of its existence. Most in the industry don’t believe we have it—yet. The cause is not clear, but there are several factors that are common to the disorder including some sprays, presence of Varroa mite and old fashioned stress.

Vice president of the Association of Beekeepers, Barry Foster, says we do have some of the conditions but by no means all. Bees are moved round the country but distances are very small compared with the United States. Full flight, this would be a major problem.

Trees for Bees
Fed Farmers Bees group has launched a programme to encourage farmers to plant bee- friendly trees in waterway margins, windbreaks, field edges, under pivots and along roadsides. The project involves regional literature to take into account climate.

This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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