Lucrative honey industry under threat

beeColony collapse disorder is a threat to New Zealand’s $5.1 billion apiculture.

The NZ Apiculture Conference in Taupo had as one of its focus points colony collapse disorder, which is the rapid and highly destructive death of honey bee hives.

North Island beekeepers spanning the Coromandel, Great Barrier, Wairarapa and Taranaki suffered significant losses, with some reporting up to 95 per cent of adult bees disappearing from hives. However, a lack of reporting to the Ministry for Primary Industries or the Environmental Protection Agency meant there was no certainty about whether the sudden collapses were linked, the conference attendees in Taupo heard.

The comments came during a panel session including Dr Oksana Borowik, a commercial beekeeper and geneticist, Don Macleod, a pesticide consultant who works with the National Beekeepers’ Association, and Dr Mark Goodwin, head of the honey bees and pollination unit at Plant & Food Research.

Borowik was the first to report a sudden departure of bees at her Coromandel hives between August and December. Hives were discovered with only 200 young worker bees, the queen and plenty of pollen and nectar for them to eat with few dead bees found near the hive. The remaining bees were riddled with Nosema Apis and Nosema Ceranae pathogens, which attack the honey bees’ gut, as was a recently discovered pathogen, Lotmaria Passim, she said.

DNA testing by Gisborne-based dnature confirmed the presence of the pathogens.

None of the bees that left the hives had been collected, meaning little was known whether they carried pathogens but it is understood nosema rapidly ages the bees, meaning they can leave the hive earlier, and also affects their homing abilities to return to the hive.

Speaking from the floor, a visiting US beekeeper told the conference the symptoms were very similar to the colony collapse disorder experienced by beekeepers in the US. In 2008, after reports of disappearing adult bees, the US Department of Agriculture’s research unit surveyed 20 per cent of the country’s 2.44 million colonies. Surveyed beekeepers reported a total loss of about 36 per cent of their honey bee colonies, up about 14 per cent from the previous winter, according to the research on its website.

The number of registered beekeepers increased 12 per cent in 2013/14 to 4814, and is nearly back to pre-varroa levels. Meanwhile, total hive numbers reached 500,000, an increase of 55,000 on the previous year. About 750 commercial beekeepers accounted for more than 90 per cent of those hives while hobby beekeepers, defined as owning 50 hives or fewer, numbered 4590. In July last year, there were just 800 members across the two bee industry groups.

Federated Farmers Bees, Honey Packers’ and Exporters’ Association, and National Beekeepers’ Association have all voted to proceed with plans to create a single national body for the apiculture industry.

The industry bodies voted with a substantial majority to unify the industry at their respective annual meetings held after the four-day Taupo conference. The Apiculture Industry Unification Project’s interim working group told the conference that to be profitable and sustainable the industry needed formalised administration and a single peak body funded by a possible reintroduction of commodity levies.

The working group proposed an interim governance board of 12, with a goal to launch a formal national body for the $5.1 billion industry next April. It would grow out of the National Beekeepers’ Association and would represent commercial and hobby beekeepers, exporters, packers, food manufacturers and health product makers. The Federated Farmers Bee group would be wound down, while the Honey Packers’ and Exporters’ Association, and the Bee Products Standards Council would come under the national body’s umbrella.

There are expectations China will impose standards on the lucrative manuka honey trade, which has drawn criticism in the UK after a number of false claims to manuka pedigree from what were just blends. Asian demand for manuka honey has seen the price across all NZ honey increase, stoked by a global shortage of honey. Bees produced $187 million of exported honey in the June 2014 year, up eight per cent by volume and almost 30 per cent by value on the previous year.

The National Beekeepers’ Association was funded by commodity levies during the late 1990s, but members voted against renewing the levies after their expiry in 2002, and membership to the association also became voluntary. In 1996, before it moved to a per site charge, levies were $1.61 per hive and the average honey price was $2.20 per kilogram. The average price of honey is now $15 per kilogram, he said.

In one scenario outlined, if the industry was charged $1 for each of the country’s 482,856 commercial hives plus a levy of one cent per kilogram of honey it could raise $632,856, based on 15,000 tonnes of honey produced. If hobbyists’ hives were included there would be a further $21,195. If hive fees were $2.50 and the levy rate was 15 cents per kilo that would be $3.5 million.

In the meantime, the working group said the interim governance board will be funded by a voluntary subscription. It led by an independent chairman, with representatives voted on by their sectors. Commercial beekeepers will get four seats, export packers and marketers two seats, while hobbyist beekeepers, domestic packers and marketers, food manufacturers and health products get a seat each. This is also a possible model for the final body.

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