Bees are crucial to our primary sector, with a role far beyond honey production. New Zealand’s dependence on horticulture and agriculture means we may be more dependent on pollination from the honey bee than any other nation on earth.
Did you know that at 30 June 2013 there were 4,279 registered beekeepers, 27,106 apiaries and 452,018 beehives in New Zealand.
New Zealand honey bee products are sought after worldwide. Around approximately 9,000 to 12,000 tonnes of honey are produced annually, with almost one third to half exported. Exports of honey alone are valued at around $81 million, including $4 million of premium organic honey.
Honey is increasingly differentiated according to the flower source, with better blends and more appealing packaging adding value and ensuring more income per kilogram. Manuka honey, with renowned antiseptic properties, is keenly sought for use in products such as wound dressings. Its value has soared in recent years.
$5.1billion of NZ's economy is attributable to pollination by honey bees, domestic honey sales and exports, beeswax and exported honey bees.
Roughly one third of everything we eat is pollinated by bees. Many of our crops would not be viable without bee pollination – with an important role also played by bumble bees. Orchardists pay for hives to be located on their properties – a cost which varies depending on the crop but could range from $80 to $195 per hive.
Tens of thousands of beehives are needed for pollination nationwide - some are also used on more than one crop, and growers are concerned about their ongoing cost and availability. Nearly all beekeepers in the North Island, and over half in the South Island, provide hives for intensive pollination.
The number of beekeepers has declined dramatically over the last 10 years, not helped by the Varroa incursion – a mite which feeds off live bee larvae and adults. Just over 3,000 New Zealanders keep bees, with the 287 biggest beekeepers managing 96% of registered hives – an increase from an industry average of 20 hives per beekeeper in 1950. Those remaining in the industry are business focussed, hard working and good managers.
Anecdotal evidence shows beekeeping in many urban areas in New Zealand is increasing in popularity. Many of the National Beekeepers’ Association of New Zealand’s branches have reported increased interest in beekeeping from city-dwellers. The NBA says keeping a hive in your backyard is a great way to pollinate your own fruit and vegetables and also provides informative and entertaining education for kids.
Even the White House is getting into urban beekeeping. Michelle Obama keeps multiple beehives at the White House and uses the honey product and pollinated vegetables as gifts for visiting dignitaries and organisations.
Overseas evidence also suggests hives in cities are thriving and sometimes produce up to three times the amount of honey as bees in rural areas.
Growers and farmers well know the bee’s importance to high performing crops and pasture. Even crops that are intended to be self-pollinating perform better if pollinated by bees. Good agricultural and horticultural practice therefore relies on the correct use of agrichemicals, especially insecticides. It is imperative that growers keep the two apart.
The use of agrichemicals toxic to bees is controlled by the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 and the Agricultural Chemicals and Veterinary Medicines Act 1997. These laws make it an offence to use agrichemicals contrary to any bee toxicity warning on the label.
Varroa (binomial name “Varroa destructor”) is a mite which feeds off live bee larvae and adults. Since its discovery in New Zealand in 2000, Varroa has posed a major challenge, spreading to most parts of the country. Left untreated, infected hives will eventually die.
The introduction of the Varroa mite is an example of an incidental pest organism that Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) has estimated will cost the New Zealand economy between $400 and $900 million over 35 years.
The Varroa incursion highlights New Zealand’s vulnerability to biosecurity threats. The whole industry was shocked and government immediately restricted beehive movements. With eradication proving too difficult – particularly in wild bee colonies – containment became the goal. Despite tight bans on movement, Varroa spread to the South Island in June 2006. During 2008 all containment activities lapsed and nothing prevented Varroa spreading throughout New Zealand. In May 2010 Varroa was confirmed in the Central Otago district. It is now assumed there are only small areas left in New Zealand that are Varroa free.
Most beekeepers now treat their hives with chemicals at a cost of around $20 each, plus labour and transportation. However, as of late 2009 some beekeepers in the Auckland area began reporting signs of Varroa becoming resistant to synthetic pyrethroid treatments. Varroa resistance to synthetic pyrethroid treatment has not been confirmed as yet but has the potential to cause more problems for beekeepers than when Varroa first arrived in the country.
Varroa has forced permanent changes to New Zealand beekeeping. Beekeepers now subscribe to the Honey Bee Exotic Disease Survellience programme, under which they are constantly on the lookout for major biosecurity risks including European Foulbrood disease, Nosema ceranae, new viruses, mites and Africanised Honey Bee.
The risk of diseases, such as European Foulbrood and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, arriving in New Zealand is why the beekeeping industry is strongly opposed to the move to allow honey imports into the country from Australia. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) is currently undertaking further work on the honey Import Health Standard (IHS) to gain information about the presence or absence in New Zealand of three organisms – P.alvei, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) and Nosema ceranae. As of the end of 2010, MAF confirmed the presence of P.alvei and Nosema ceranae in New Zealand.
New Zealand’s agriculture and horticulture industries may face a devastating biosecurity risk if a decision is made to allow the import of Australian honey products. There is significant risk to the industry of diseases and pests, like Small Hive Beetle, ‘hitchhiking’ into the country via Australian imports.
Honey bees are fundamental to the future of New Zealand’s agricultural and horticultural sectors and any threat or risk to the country’s bee population via honey imports could be disastrous for our economy.
An attack on New Zealand’s honey bee colonies affects not only the beekeeping industry but the entire agriculture and horticulture industries through the loss of pollination. That’s why it’s hugely important New Zealand remains vigilant and diligent about preventing biosecurity pests and diseases from gaining a foothold in this country.
Honey imports from Australia may also put New Zealand’s growing international honey trade in jeopardy.
As a result of ‘honey laundering’ Australia is now on a US watch list of 13 countries whose honey products must be checked carefully on entry.
According to Oritain (http://www.oritain.com/) honey is one of the most targeted foods for adulteration and counterfeiting. Oritain is developing an extensive database of authentic honey samples from around the world. It can now compare any sample to its data set and determine if its origin is within a region they have sampled. They can also determine the floral type (e.g. manuka, thyme, clover etc). This technology may become invaluable if honey from other countries is allowed into New Zealand.
The future of farming is reliant on all farmers playing their part in protecting the honey bee. In addition to the intensive pollination of horticultural and speciality agricultural crops by bees, bees also contribute indirectly through the pollination of clover, sown as a nitrogen regeneration source for the land we farm. This benefits our meat export industry through livestock production and sale.
Farmers can help bees by choosing bee friendly trees and shrubs when planting in waterway margins, windbreaks, field edges, under pivots and along roadsides. For more information visit http://www.treesforbees.org.nz.