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: