For my first column for BayBuzz it only seems fitting to write about NZ beekeeping.

Can you remember a time when bees weren’t in the news? Where have they gone? What’s happened and what has caused this alarming decline in the bee population worldwide?

The beekeeping industry is incredibly important to New Zealand. $5.1 billion of NZ’s economy is attributable to pollination by honeybees, domestic honey sales and export sales, beeswax and exported honeybees.

If you are a honeybee in New Zealand, there is roughly a 99% chance that you live in a commercial operation. This means you are managed like a commodity for pollination and honey production.

  • You live in a hive usually made of synthetic materials including plastic and toxic paint.
  • You are forced to live in a square-shaped frame rather than a natural curved shape like bees build in the wild.
  • Your Queen is ‘caged’ in the lower section of the hive.
  • Your Queen is squashed and killed each year and replaced, often with an artificially inseminated Queen. This artificially bred Queen can lack vitality and often the colony is thrown into chaos in an effort to accept her.
  • The frames you are forced to live in can contain contaminated wax, or plastic. This is where you are expected to live, work and raise your babies.
  • Pre-formed foundation wax is placed in the hives, forcing you to build comb to the beekeeper’s requirements rather than your own.
  • Each year your colony is prevented from swarming, thus preventing your species from multiplying and helping to increase its genetic diversity.
  • The majority of your honey is stolen each season and you are fed white sugar to sustain you until the flowers start blooming again in late Spring.
  • Toxic chemical treatments are often added to your home to treat many diseases that have been introduced from poor beekeeping practices.
  • Your colony is trucked around the region and forced to pollinate crops. With some crops, such as Kiwifruit, your hive is placed in the middle of a mono crop, so you are forced to feed off this crop even though it is not nutritious for you.
  • The drones (males) in your hive are often culled, as they provide nothing to the commercial beekeeper.

Reading this, does it make you feel that the honeybee is no better off than the battery hen or the pig in the sow stall?

The ‘Langstroth hive’ (the stacked boxes) we are all familiar with have been designed for maximum ease of use by the commercial beekeeper for high production and fast extraction of honey, but with little thought on how the bee would prefer to live.

Clearly there is an important role for commercial beekeepers until the natural order is restored and there are enough bees to do the job naturally. I believe there needs to be encouragement for more people, particularly backyard beekeepers, to keep bees in a more sustainable and natural way.

Around the world there has been a huge resurgence in amateur beekeeping, particularly in urban areas. Research shows that honeybees do better in an urban environment as they have more year-round access to nectar and pollen than their rural sisters. Beehives are now kept on apartment balconies, back gardens, and rooftops in the major cities of the world.

Along with the growth in hobby beekeepers there is a growing movement for sustainable beekeeping. This alternative approach emphasises small scale, low cost and low technology, using locally adapted bee populations and simple equipment. These alternative methods of keeping bees result in a lower honey harvest, but a stronger and healthier bee population. New Zealand needs healthy bees to pollinate our crops.

A sustainable beekeeper allows bees to emulate how they have lived for tens of thousands of years, before humans started to meddle with them. One method of sustainable beekeeping is using a Top Bar Hive. This is how I keep my bees in my urban backyard in Havelock North.

A Top Bar Hive allows:

  • Bees to build their own natural comb to their own particular dimensions.
  • The Queen is allowed to move throughout the colony.
  • Honey is left for the bees, with only superfluous being removed.
  • Drones are allowed to develop to spread the colonies genetic makeup.
  • Queens remain for as long as the colony needs them.
  • Disturbance of the colony is kept to a minimum.

Similar to organic farming, sustainable beekeeping uses practices that respect the needs of the bees and the surrounding environment. It is about working with the bees rather than against them. As with many things in the primary production sector, our attitude about honeybees desperately needs to be re-calibrated. We need to stop treating bees as production units and return to working with them.

I would love to see a network of educated and supported hobby beekeepers keeping healthy bees in a more sustainable, legal and small scale way. I believe such beekeepers will play a pivotal role in helping to reverse the decline in honeybees, and creating and maintaining vigorous, naturally-bred healthy local bee populations.

If you are interested in learning more about natural ways of keeping bees, please visit:

www.saveourbees.org.nz
www.biobees.com

Join the Conversation

4 Comments

  1. I was surprised to find this emotive and inaccurate article in BayBuzz. I had thought that your magazine always strived to get both sides of controversial issues. I wonder if the writer, Janet Luck, is a typo and should be Janet Luke.
    Anyway it is important to realise that honey bees are not native to NZ and were introduced here as domesticated bees, along with other domesticated farm animals. Pests and diseases such as varooa mite and American foul brood mean that feral bees can no longer thrive so farmed bees are necessary for pollinating our plant food industry. No mention was made that beekeepers and their hives must be registered with Assure Quality and be available for inspection. For accurate information on this issue you should contact the Beekeepers’ Association

  2. Emotive ? yes, inaccurate ? no – not if you really understand what is happening to our bees all over the world.
    beekeeping in NZ has always been commercially driven, this is unhealthy for them, along with other commercially driven livestock – something has to give and it is always the animals or insects.
    Wake up, realize and make changes – if we still cherish our way of life, all of us need to think differently about how we care for insects that depend on us to keep them alive and healthy.

    Natural Beekeeping . . . give bees a chance

  3. With any issue there is always more than one perspective. Luckily we live in a wonderful country where we can all have our own individual views. What I am suggesting is for more educated and supported backyard beekeepers that keep bees legally ( registered hives and annual checks conducted for American Foulbrood and other exotic bee diseases, of course) so that more backyard beekeepers can care for bees to help with the very important role of local pollination. You are quite correct in saying that there are now no longer feral colonies of honey bees left in NZ. Now bees need us as much as we need them.

    Hobbyist beekeepers make up the largest number of registered beekeepers in New Zealand but only own a very small percentage of the number of hives in our country. I am only suggesting that perhaps there is an alternative, more sustainable and bee focussed way for this important pollination work to be carried out. With a healthy resident bee population there would be fewer requirements for hives to be trucked around regions. This would help to lower the risk of the spread of bee diseases, in particular American foulbrood.

    I am a member of the National Beekeepers Association but there are other industry stakeholders, including the Federated Farmers Bees industry Group http://www.fedfarm.org.nz/industry.bees who are doing wonderful work such as the ‘ Trees for Bees’ programme. This Industry group also acknowledges that “strong and healthy bees are a critical part of profitable agriculture”.

  4. An interesting article that will raise some points for future discussion, that's for sure. You may be interested to know that NZ Beekeepers runs a New Zealand Beekeeping Forum, which is rapidly growing into a free and open resource for all New Zealand based beekeepers. The vision is for those who are experienced in keeping bees and those who are new to the hobby to come together in a place where they can share hints, tips and experiences to help protect and expand New Zealand honey bee population.

    If you run a business, club, association or have a website that is related to bees, beekeeping or bee products within New Zealand, then we would love for you to notify your members of our presence at http://www.nzbees.net/forum/

    Many thanks

    Grant

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