By Bruce Wills
In 2000, the sum of all fears for New Zealand’s beekeepers took place when the Varroa Destructor Mite was confirmed in Auckland.
A mere six years later, Varroa had jumped the Cook Strait to reach Nelson and progressively, over the past six years, has spread south.
This year it reached as south as you can travel in mainland New Zealand; Bluff. If it wasn’t for human intervention, the economic and agronomic effects of Varroa would be like Foot & Mouth disease.
Our economy and farming system depends on honeybees and a pollination workforce involving some 430,000 hives.
While people may judge the bee industry by the honey they purchase at a farmer’s market or the supermarket, that is a drop in the bucket.
The real value of honeybees is as pollinators par-excellence.
Just this aspect of what these amazing insects do is conservatively estimated to be worth $5 billion each year to ‘NZ Inc’. Unlike Didymo, which came in on an anglers’ equipment, we have no idea how Varroa breached our border but its effects have been devastating.
Untold numbers of wild hives, which once lived in the walls and ceilings of sheds, in hollowed out trees and even, in people’s homes, have been wiped out.
The Varroa Mite is something out of central casting from Alien; it attaches to a host, sucks out vital fluids and breeds to epidemic proportions eventually kills the hive.
To fight Varroa, beekeepers have to use special ‘miticides’ to kill the mite but not the bee. These are expensive and must be used at least twice-yearly to maintain a stable hive. The cost of containing Varroa is around $50 per hive each year making it a massive $20 million expense each year.
Using miticides means our bee industry has mostly lost its organic status.
While there are a few determined beekeepers trying to fight Varroa by organic means, it is challenging and unfortunately, tends to have a high failure rate. Failure means the loss of hives and heart break for any beekeeper.
Yet Varroa isn’t the only threat.
A mere three hours away by plane, Varroa-free Australia harbours nasty bee diseases like European Foulbrood and the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. Since both are transmittable in honey, it takes just one jar ending up in the recycling for bees to follow a honey pot to disaster. Suddenly, Australia doesn’t seem such a low risk country after all.
Going the other way, Australia most certainly doesn’t want Varroa from New Zealand. Beekeepers want greater education for Kiwis and our visitors matched with biosecurity vigilance and serious enforcement.
It is time to get hard and to enforce the penalties we have to send a message we mean business.
It also means vigilance on the trade front with import health standards. Who wants to jeopardise our pastoral and horticultural exports by allowing potentially diseased honey or bee products into New Zealand?
Meanwhile our ports need to be on-guard for the Asian Honey Bee, now endemic in Queensland. If it came here it would rate up there with wasps as a catastrophe.
Asian Honey Bee’s do not produce commercial honey preferring to pilfer from honeybee hives instead. We have no doubt these bees have the grave potential to threaten our native birds and insects not to mention, the economy.
So outside of education and biosecurity, what can be done to aid our greatest little workers?
Good protein and nectar produces fat bees and in nature, fat bees are healthy bees.
While Massey University has an expert in fat studies by the unlikely name of Dr Cat Pause, I guess Federated Farmers is standing up for fat bee rights. Federated Farmers Trees for Bees is the product of several years work and now offers ten regional planting guides for anyone to create a bee friendly space. While they are available from a number of websites, all you have to do is type “trees for bees” into Google.
Federated Farmers is also working with the Sustainable Farming Fund (SFF) and other industry groups to understand the true pollen value of every plant available to the New Zealand bee industry. Who knows, Manuka may not be the only pleasant surprise out there.
You can also say we are all trying to see pollen through the two compound eyes of a bee. Under the leadership of Dr Linda Newstrom-Lloyd from Landcare Research, this project is called ‘Trees for healthy bees’. There are farms in the process of being planted with ‘bee friendly’ trees and shrubs. This will allow scientists to monitor the health of honeybees from an unfriendly environment, to one which has a good balance of pollen bearing trees and shrubs. It means we’ll end up with better planting guidelines for both Island’s applicable for town and country alike.
Even in deepest suburbia, our current Trees for Bees planting guides can suggest appropriate trees and shrubs for homes and schools to plant. Farmers can even plant bee friendly plants on unproductive land, like fenced off waterways, tight corners and even steep hillsides.
Low maintenance concrete landscaping in-town maybe popular, but it is alien to bee life. As are farms where all sources of pollen have been removed.
We have a range of other tips and suggestions, like ensuring sprays are used correctly and when bees aren’t flying.
While irrigation is the last thing on farmers’ minds right now, when they are turned on, they shouldn’t be used until dusk to dawn. You’ll not only save on evaporation, you won’t chill bees to death either.
Being an avid planter myself, I am off right now to plant the last of my willows for season. One of the many reasons over the last four years I have planted only willows in preference to poplars, is that willows are better for bees. This I guess is another example of farmers getting on and doing good stuff for the environment when the knowledge and research is there.