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27Jun

Bees keep agri economy flying

Bees keep agri economy flying
Words by Richard Rennie, Image by Amy Piper

Anyone with even a passing interest in agriculture and food will be familiar with the dire stories abounding about the decline in bee numbers throughout parts of the Northern Hemisphere.

Reports of whole populations declining, even disappearing through an assortment of diseases have caused huge concern in regions like Europe, and despite the resources thrown into the problem, the reasons still appear difficult to explain.

As with many things in life the humble honey bee has been taken for granted, there has been little census data taken on its health and numbers. Like all under-appreciated things in life, it’s not until it’s gone that it’s noticed.

Reports done on the declines in Europe touch on the impact of pests and diseases, loss of habitat, pesticide impacts and the genetic diversity of bee populations declining.

Here in New Zealand however, it appears bees are thriving, enjoying a new found status not only as the need for their pollination skills grow, with growth in horticultural crops, but also thanks to valuable manuka honey harvests.

The growing value of the honey, for use in medicinal treatments, cosmetics and as a health food has helped inject a renewed level of interest in beekeeping, both as a back yard hobby and as an industry. 

In Canterbury, the specialist seed sector is also experiencing growth, providing high value seed crops like carrots, radish and pak choy, all requiring bees to pollinate them.

The small seeds sector is a growing one, requiring more bees every year, and would typically require about 25,000 hives.  For some growers the cost per hive is high, at up to $1,800 a hive, but this compares to a specialty seed industry with an export value of about $200 million.

In the Bay of Plenty strong growth in high value horticultural crops like Gold kiwifruit, with an additional 700ha a year being converted to the fruit, guarantees a continuing healthy demand for nature’s pollinators to keep crops viable. New Zealand now has almost 900,000 hives, well up on the 300,000 in 2000, and every hive hosts about 60,000 bees.

Apiculture New Zealand Chief Executive Karin Kos says the growing market for bees as commercial pollinators has not gone unnoticed by their beekeeping owners.

“In fact, when you look at the nature of the honey business, which can be influenced quite heavily by the weather, having a second string to your business with pollination makes a lot of sense and it is an area more beekeepers are starting to consider.”

Dr Mark Goodwin, head bee researcher for Plant and Food has said there was a strong likelihood New Zealand could reach one million hives in only a couple of years.

He said there were health issues facing bees, including varroa’s presence now meaning the bees could not exist without human help. However, on a world level, NZ has some of the healthiest bee colonies in the world.

The greatest impact upon New Zealand bee populations in recent years was the incursion of the varroa mite in early 2000, ultimately spreading south to affect the entire country. The biggest population impact on bees has been to almost wipe out the feral bee population here.

Among the multiple factors that have impacted upon bee populations overseas, a United Nations Environment Programme report has identified varroa mite as “the most serious threat to apiculture globally.”

However careful management and a strong contingent of hobbyist beekeepers has helped keep the mite at a manageable level in New Zealand.

As with many species suffering from growing human incursion into the natural world, bees represent something of a counter to that. In New Zealand they have thrived with human intervention, driven in part by a growing appreciation that to grow the high value crops overseas markets need, we need bees to make it happen.

The intervention is reflected in registered bee keeping enterprise numbers.

The 2017 Ministry for Primary Industries apiculture monitoring programme records 795,600 hives to the middle of last year, up 110,000 on the year before, with strong demand coming from iwi and corporate expansion.  That number is now estimated to be nearer 900,000.

However this increase also came with one of the poorest harvest years on record for honey, with a tonnage of 14,855t the lowest crop since the 2011-12 year when there were only 370,000 hives.

The 2017 bee colony survey found the estimated hive loss to winter 2017 was almost 10%, unchanged from the previous two years and a result that puts New Zealand well up globally in terms of hive and colony health. Overall the number of colonies reported that year had increased by 17%, following a 20% increase the year before that.

Overall the surveys are finding the high beekeeper to hive ratio in New Zealand is helping contribute to generally positive results. The ratio allows for a more hands on management approach by beekeepers, including being able to inspect hives more regularly for disease and damage, and being able to respond quickly to those problems.

On-commercial or “back yard beekeeping” also plays a big role in reinforcing colony numbers and health. These operations with less than 250 colonies comprise 93% of beekeeping operations, and hobbyists’ passion for their interest has helped maintain numbers through urban and rural areas alike.

Of the 7,800 beekeeping enterprises in New Zealand, Canterbury is a big player, comprising 1,048 businesses, almost 50% of the total South Island hives.

The conversion to dairying in the greater Canterbury region has bought an extra challenge to bee populations, with the loss of shelter belts and areas of traditional broom and gorse that once provided valuable nutritional resources for the honey bee at certain times of year.

Federated Farmers “Trees for Bees” campaign has done a lot to help educate farmers on the need to provide for bees in the corners of the farm that are less productive, such as the un-irrigated parts of paddocks, irrigation pond areas and marginal stream and river boundaries.

The campaign provides well founded information for farmers on latest research and planting guides specific to different locations on its website www.treesforbeesnz.org

Overall Karin Kos says New Zealand is in a good place with its bee health, and her upbeat view also reflects some departure from earlier doomsday forecasts about global bee populations completely disappearing.

An article in Time magazine in 2013 pointed out that the world’s “backbone” foods of corn, wheat and rice are self-pollinating. However it would mean for less colourful dinner plates, with plants like lettuce, cherries, kiwifruit and many others absent.

For a country like New Zealand the cost would be even greater, given the billions of dollars earned through valuable horticultural, crop and seed production.

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