Wild NZ: The Humble Honeybee

Wild NZ: The Humble Honeybee

“The bee is more honoured than other animals not because she labours, but because she labours for others” – St John Chrysostom

by Mike Cooney

OF ALL NATURE'S CREATURES, NONE HAS CAUGHT MY ATTENTION MORE THAN THE HONEYBEE. (Unless you’d call my wife a creature, but I wouldn’t ...). Now, let’s be clear: I’m no insect lover. In fact, I take great delight in killing wasps, squishing cockroaches, and spraying flies. And the mosquito ranks about as low as they come. But bees? Well, I have been known to rescue the odd one from a spider’s web, and re-energize a worn-out worker-bee with a drop of honey. 

In fact, I like them so much that I’ve just finished my second season as a beekeeper.

Yep, that’s right! I’m a fully-fledged keeper of bees. And, along with my wife (who actually has a Certificate in Apiculture Knowledge), we run 60+ hives with my good mate and his wife (who have a few hundred). It certainly keeps us busy, particularly during the spring and summer honey flows, but the hard work is worth it – and we get to work outside, drive 4wds, travel to different locations, and get stung. A lot.

The sting thing is mainly self-inflicted due to my sometimes lackadaisical approach – but I don’t mind so much. Except when you forget your hood and a bee does a suicide-run up your nostril. I do mind that!

Anyway, as I was saying … bees are awesome. And if you’re not already convinced, check out the following bee-facts. I mean, I bet you didn’t know that: 

  • A strong hive can contain upwards of 60,000 bees at its peak. And each of those bees has a job to do: nurse-bees care for the young … attendants feed and clean the queen … guard-bees stand at the entrance ready to fight off intruders … construction workers build the beeswax foundation in which the queen lays her eggs … the workers store honey … undertakers carry the dead from the hive … foragers go out and collect pollen and nectar …

  • And then there are drones, who don’t do much except die straight after mating! As the only males in the hive, the drones are larger, can’t sting, and don’t do anything except mate with the queen – an event that happens in the air, after which they fall from the sky dead. (I just hope it’s worth it!)

  • Once the queen’s done her raunchy maiden flight, she returns to her hive with enough sperm inside her to last a lifetime. She can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day – and a million in her three-to-four-year lifetime! Which is why she needs someone to feed and clean her.

  • The average worker-bee will gather enough nectar to produce about half a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. She might visit 2000 flowers in a day, and, as a result of all her hard work, may only live six weeks. This nectar is passed (regurgitated) from bee to bee before being deposited in a cell. Other bees continually fan this bee-spew to remove the moisture and turn it into honey.

  • Honeybees have one of the most complex languages on earth. For example: foragers must find flowers, determine their value as a food source, navigate their way back home, share a detailed message about their find –what it is, where it’s found – with other foragers, who then fly off to locate the exact plant. And would you believe that we humans have cracked their language code? It’s called the waggle dance. Google it – it’s awesome.

A bit of history …

New Zealand has 28 native bee species, and although they collect and store nectar, they don’t produce honey in large quantities. This is the domain of the honeybee – a social bee first introduced to our shores in 1839 by Mary Bumby. Miss Bumby (a Northland missionary’s sister) brought her bees over from England. More imports soon arrived, and escaping bees quickly established themselves in the hospitable New Zealand bush. Loving the new-found natives (and their delicious nectar-producing flowers), wild colonies quickly spread – and by 1860, they were found throughout our forests. 

Utilising this new (and tasty) resource, Maori sold considerable amounts of wild honey – and, according to my calculations, were the country’s first ‘commercial’ beekeepers.

While these new additions to the New Zealand insect world weren’t needed to pollinate our native plants, with the introduction of white clover they quickly became essential. The clover grew extremely well in our climate, but couldn’t reseed without a pollinator. Thankfully, the honeybees loved the stuff and soon helped our burgeoning agricultural industry (built largely on clover-based pastures) become one of the best in the world. In fact, the value of bees to agricultural and horticultural industries is many times greater than the revenue earned by honey.

While there’ve been a few types of bees imported into the country, the two main honeybees used commercially are the mild-mannered Italian and the slightly feistier Carniolan. Isaac Hopkins (known as the grandfather of New Zealand beekeeping) established the first commercial apiary at Matamata in 1882, using Italian bees. The end of WWI saw a rapid increase in beekeeping, followed by another after WWII. In 1950 there were some 7000 beekeepers with 150,000 hives … and by 1988 more than 335,000 hives, the growth due largely to the demand for pollination.

Devastation by Varroa destructor …

In April 2000, the New Zealand beekeeping industry was shattered by the discovery of the aptly named Varroa destructor. This sesame-seed-sized mite quickly started wreaking havoc on the humble honeybee, attaching itself to the body of the bee and weakening it by sucking its blood – leaving open wounds and transmitting viruses and disease. Now widespread throughout the country, the Varroa mite has changed the face of beekeeping in New Zealand forever. 

More than 25,000 hives were lost in the short few years after its discovery, and many beekeepers threw in the towel and left the industry. Bee colonies now rely on the intervention of beekeepers, using chemical strips (mostly), in an attempt to keep the Varroa mite controlled. Sadly, there are now no wild hives left.

The Manuka gold-rush …

Honey that (because of its strong flavour and dark colour) was once viewed as a worthless by-product of the ‘unfortunate tea-tree flowering’, quickly became the industry’s saviour. The discovery of manuka’s anti-bacterial properties made this honey a hit in some hospitals – particularly in dealing to ‘superbug’ infections that refused to go away using traditional treatments. High-grade manuka seemed to do the trick – and word quickly spread about its potential health benefits …

The worldwide demand for manuka honey soon started growing, and, all of a sudden, beekeeping became a lucrative business – particularly if your hives were on good manuka blocks. The extra money (up to 10x the value of clover honey) helped entice beekeepers back into the industry and pay for the increasing costs of dealing with Varroa and other diseases. But there are some downsides …

All of a sudden, worthless bush blocks were fetching ridiculous prices, small-time beekeepers were getting pushed out by the big boys with big budgets, hives were getting poisoned or stolen in turf-wars, and untrained people entered the industry hoping to make a quick buck (but, in doing so, spread disease due to poor apiary management). 

AFB (American Foul Brood) is one such disease that’s highly contagious to bees, and, when found in a hive, must be destroyed by burning – bees, boxes, frames, honey, everything! It’s an awful problem to discover and by far the nastiest disease to get. It is, however, manageable, and with training and good apiary practices, you can eliminate it from your hives. (But this becomes a lot more difficult when a neighbouring beekeeper doesn’t share those same good practices.)

Despite all the challenges facing beekeepers and their bees, it’s an incredibly satisfying activity to be involved in. Just like farming, you can have great seasons and (like our recent one) pretty tough ones. The weather plays a huge part.

But the humble honeybee is truly an insect to be honoured. And, as long as I still find these insects fascinating, I’ll keep working with them. Their intelligence, social interaction, order and productivity is incredible. The health and wellbeing of the hive is what drives them – from the day they emerge from their cell to the day they die. 

Unless, of course, you’re a drone. There’s only one thing on his mind …