To bee or not to bee

Is hav­ing your own hive of bees a good idea? En­vi­ron­men­tally or eco­nom­i­cally? If that is the ques­tion, the an­swer may be sur­pris­ing.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS SHERYN CLOTHIER

Is hav­ing your own hive of bees a good idea? The an­swer may sur­prise you.

It wasn’t that long ago we were be­ing told we had to save the bees. There was the var­roa mite, the mys­te­ri­ous Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der wip­ing out en­tire hives, and the dreaded Amer­i­can Foul­brood dis­ease (AFB). Our bees were in trou­ble, and with them a third of our food sup­ply. With­out bees, our fruits and veg­eta­bles would not get pol­li­nated and we would all go hun­gry.

At best it seemed we should man­age a hive and con­trol the re­cently-ar­rived var­roa mite (which has wiped out any bees liv­ing free). At the least, we should be plant­ing bee-friendly plants so they have lots of food avail­able.

While all true, like most mes­sages, there is more to it than that. Some is more rel­e­vant in­ter­na­tion­ally and some is about the very com­mer­cial busi­ness of mak­ing honey and money.

Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der (CCD) is a name given to the un­ex­plained de­pop­u­la­tion of a hive. United States gov­ern­ment fig­ures have shown a 30 per cent re­duc­tion in honey bee colonies each year since 2007, and New Zealand had 9.7 per cent losses at­trib­uted to CCD in 2016.

Re­search is find­ing that mul­ti­ple stres­sors such as mal­nu­tri­tion and com­pound­ing lev­els of com­bi­na­tions of chem­i­cals are a prob­a­ble cause of Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der. No sur­prises there.

The in­dus­try is catch­ing on that strip­ping away the win­ter honey sup­ply and re­plac­ing it with a sugar sub­sti­tute is not nu­tri­tion­ally good for bees. Add in new dis­eases and pests, and a preva­lence of pes­ti­cides, and the poor lit­tle honey bee is just not healthy enough to cope.

I be­lieve bees in our ecosys­tem are like ca­naries in a coal mine and we should be tak­ing note. If what is in our food source is neg­a­tively af­fect­ing a lit­tle bee, mul­ti­ply it to a hu­man scale and you need to won­der how it af­fects us.

The to­tal num­ber of bee­hives in New Zealand has more than dou­bled in the last five years. We now have more hives per capita than any coun­try in the world and, more se­ri­ously, are sec­ond in our den­sity of hives per square kilo­me­tre (see page 50 for the data). The only ar­eas with more bees per square kilo­me­tre are the mas­sive al­mond or­chards in Cal­i­for­nia which im­port bees from as far away as Florida dur­ing the pol­li­na­tion sea­son.

Sav­ing the bees is not about be­ing nice to cute lit­tle fuzzy parts of our ecosys­tem. It is big busi­ness. New Zealand ex­ported $315 mil­lion worth of honey last year. Com­pare that to 10 years ago, when it was $30 mil­lion.

The 2015/16 sea­son pro­duced an es­ti­mated honey crop of 19,885 tonnes, a record crop, but only slightly higher than

the pre­vi­ous year de­spite an ad­di­tional 108,174 hives. The av­er­age hive yield of 29kg was lower than in re­cent years*.

Whether this den­sity of bees is sus­tain­able is start­ing to gen­er­ate some de­bate. *Statis­tics from Linda New­strom-lloyd, The New Zealand Bee­keeper, and Api­cul­ture NZ.

Will the ab­sence of bees se­ri­ously af­fect our food sup­ply?

Let me add a lit­tle qual­i­fi­ca­tion to this ques­tion. The ab­sence of bees will se­ri­ously af­fect the world’s com­mer­cial food sup­ply. The honey bee ( Apis mel­lif­era) is the only bee man can ma­nip­u­late eco­nom­i­cally be­cause: • it lives in a large colony and can be housed and trans­ported; • bees make a very saleable prod­uct, honey.

These fac­tors make it eco­nom­i­cally lu­cra­tive to do this.

Bee­keep­ers move hives into an area where pol­li­na­tion needs to be done, ie ki­wifruit or­chards, then away to an­other area once flow­er­ing is over. If bees were left to for­age in a mono­cul­ture ki­wifruit block all year – which is very low nu­tri­tion for a bee any­way – the bees would starve once the ki­wifruit flow­ers have fin­ished.

Bee­keep­ers move hives around to either get money for pro­vid­ing pol­li­na­tion ser­vices, or to a source like manuka to pro­duce honey. This en­sures the com­mer­cial food sup­ply of most of our fruits and a lot of veg­eta­bles.

It’s im­por­tant to note bees pre­fer flow­ers that are easy to feed from, with a sin­gle row of petals in their favourite colours (blue, pur­ple, white, yel­low) as these are eas­i­est to land on and re­trieve nec­tar and pollen. Manuka is not their first choice if they have an op­tion.

Honey bees are the most ef­fec­tive pol­li­na­tors com­mer­cially as they are ‘flo­ral con­stant’. This means once the bee scouts tell the hive about a good source (by danc­ing), the bees fo­cus on that one species only. This is a pos­i­tive com­mer­cially, but a neg­a­tive in your home or­chard if your lone apri­cot tree is be­ing ig­nored for a more pro­lific crop of bor­age.

But pol­li­na­tion is not the life am­bi­tion of a bee. Worker honey bees need to for­age enough food for the whole colony, which can be up to 60,000 strong. They have to feed all the young brood, the queen, her drones (con­sorts whose sole job is to mate with the queen), and lay in enough honey for the win­ter, plus some for the hu­man thief who steals their store.

Flow­ers pro­vide food in re­turn for the side ef­fect of get­ting their male pollen trans­ported to a (hope­fully ap­pro­pri­ate) stigma to fer­tilise the fe­male ovule. It’s this act of pol­li­na­tion that ini­ti­ates seeds, veg­eta­bles and fruit.

For an energy feed for the bee, and to stop her eat­ing all the pollen, the plant pro­vides nec­tar which is 80 per cent wa­ter with some com­plex sug­ars and cheaper for the plant to pro­duce (us­ing car­bon rather than ni­tro­gen). Nec­tar is sucked up into a sec­ond stom­ach and taken back to the hive to be re­gur­gi­tated into honey.

One worker bee work­ing flat-out for her en­tire life (un­til her wings wear out, or about 6-8 weeks in sum­mer) will col­lect just one twelfth of a tea­spoon of honey.

Pollen is full of vi­ta­mins and min­er­als and this is gath­ered for feed­ing to the bees when they are young. Drop­ping any onto re­cep­tive flower stigma (pol­li­na­tion) is a waste as far as the bee is con­cerned, but is a haz­ard of the job. Thank­fully each pollen gran­ule con­tains be­tween 100 to five mil­lion spores, so a bee only needs to drop one on the re­cep­tive stigma and voila, a seed is born.

The bum­ble bees

But the honey bee is not the only pol­li­na­tor in town. Bum­ble bees were brought into New Zealand over 100 years ago, mainly be­cause their long tongue is needed to get into the clover flower. How­ever, they are ex­tremely ef­fec­tive gen­eral pol­li­na­tors, and sur­pass the honey bee in a num­ber of ways.

Firstly, they work longer and harder. These gen­tle giants of the bee species will fly at cooler tem­per­a­tures (8°C com­pared to the honey bee’s 15°C start­ing tem­per­a­ture) and will still work on cloudy days and/or in wind speeds of up to 70km/h. Their larger hairy bod­ies can also carry quite a load.

They also ‘buzz’ – vi­brate their body at a high fre­quency – to shake the pollen loose, which is more ef­fi­cient for pol­li­na­tion and al­most es­sen­tial in some crops such as Solana­ceous species (eg, pota­toes, toma­toes, cap­sicums) and blue­ber­ries.

An­other at­tribute is their abil­ity to work un­der cover (some­thing that can con­fuse the honey bee), which puts them in great de­mand in com­mer­cial green­houses where toma­toes, cap­sicums, egg­plants and straw­ber­ries are grown.

They are also not af­fected by the var­roa mite.

A bum­ble bee colony is much smaller than that of the honey bee, usu­ally only 150-200 work­ers. The bum­ble bee queens hi­ber­nate over win­ter in small cav­i­ties in the ground, emerg­ing in spring to feed be­fore find­ing a dry cav­ity in which to start a colony. First, she lays a few eggs and tends to them, then as they hatch and take over some of the chores, she lays more and more eggs (for 3-8 weeks).

In mid-sum­mer, old age starts to take its toll and the colony dies down ex­cept for new queens who are off gorg­ing them­selves in prepa­ra­tion for hi­ber­na­tion.

The na­tive bees

Then there are the 32 species of na­tive bee. These are less no­tice­able thanks to their black colour­ing, but they are very

© ef­fec­tive pol­li­na­tors, as large in body as

– the honey bee and able to carry pollen loads of al­most the same size.

Na­tive bees are soli­tary in habit and don’t form colonies like the bum­ble and honey bee. Leio­proc­tus and Hy­laeinae sp. over­win­ter as fully-fed pre-pu­pae (the last lar­val or grub-like stage) in cells in nests, and hatch out in spring.

Af­ter mat­ing, fe­males con­struct new nests: Leio­proc­tus in holes in the ground, Hy­laeinae in hol­low plant ma­te­rial. They spend the sum­mer for­ag­ing and stock­ing up the nests un­til dy­ing off in au­tumn, leav­ing an­other gen­er­a­tion of pre-pu­pae be­hind.

La­sioglos­sum sp. over-win­ter as fer­tilised fe­males in nests in the ground. Fe­males be­come ac­tive as tem­per­a­tures rise af­ter mid-win­ter, and con­struct new nests from which males and fe­males emerge within a few weeks. Af­ter mat­ing, the new fe­males be­gin nest­ing, some­times with sev­eral op­er­at­ing from the same nest. By au­tumn males and older fe­males die off, while new, mated fe­males re­main in nests for the win­ter.

NZ also has thou­sands of species of tiny (friendly) wasps and birds, lizards, moths, but­ter­flies, flies and other in­sects which also play a role in pol­li­na­tion. But all these ‘wild’ pol­li­na­tors need food all year round, not just when our ap­ple tree is in blos­som.

The honey bee was bought into New Zealand in the early 1800s, along with most of our food-pro­duc­ing plants, and the fo­cus has al­ways been on them. Now that we have so many honey bees, a very se­ri­ous ques­tion is what is the cost to our na­tive bee and in­sect pop­u­la­tion as they com­pete for food? No­body knows.

These other pol­li­na­tors have never had a lot of at­ten­tion. We don’t know their num­bers be­fore the honey bee ar­rived, how they com­pete for food, or how ef­fec­tive they are at pol­li­nat­ing our food. They are not com­mer­cially im­por­tant and no-one has cared enough to find out more about them.

My ex­pe­ri­ence with bees

Pol­li­na­tion was never an is­sue in my di­verse home or­chard. Thanks to un­der­storey and com­pan­ion plant­ing, I have food avail­able for ben­e­fi­cial in­sects most of the year. I don’t spray any pes­ti­cides (not even or­ganic ones) and pur­posely leave ar­eas of suit­able habi­tat.

I of­ten used to no­tice the lit­tle holes of the na­tive bees in patches of bare ground. But de­spite some con­cen­trated view­ing, I have not yet seen a na­tive bee en­ter­ing or emerg­ing from said holes, but the fre­quency of them was proof of a healthy pop­u­la­tion.

If that wasn’t enough, some­times a bee­keeper housed com­mer­cial hives on the neigh­bour’s farm and I am sure they came the kilo­me­tre or so to visit.

Then I jumped on the ‘Save the Bees’ band­wagon. I got my own hive. De­spite try­ing to keep pur­chases to a min­i­mum, I am now $1000 in debt to my sus­tain­able source of honey. I still have great pol­li­na­tion and now I also have honey to spare, but I don’t see many na­tive bee holes. Have I starved them out of ex­is­tence? Do we re­ally have enough food sources to sup­port 50,000-200,000 honey bees per square kilo­me­tre, plus other in­dige­nous in­sects and bees?

If op­ti­mum nu­tri­tion and re­duc­tion of chem­i­cals is es­sen­tial to honey bee health, we can pre­sume the same goes for our na­tive bees and other ben­e­fi­cial in­sects. Our com­mer­cial mono-crops and cleared land don’t pro­vide this, nor the habi­tats they need to sur­vive, and this is where a lifestyle block or gar­den can play an

Drop­ping pollen, which is what pol­li­nates plants, is ac­tu­ally a waste to a bee.

La­sioglos­sum na­tive bee.

Hy­laeus na­tive bee. Lleio­proc­tus na­tive bee.

Sheryn work­ing with her hives. A bum­ble­bee on a spring onion flower. A bee on broc­coli flow­ers. Sheryn’s hives.

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