Wild bees may save our honey

The Tribune (NZ) - - PLAN BEE - JAMIE SMALL

Plant & Food Re­search is ask­ing for pub­lic help to lo­cate colonies of feral bees, as ground­break­ing ev­i­dence sug­gests they may save our honey in­dus­try from the dev­as­tat­ing var­roa mite.

Bee num­bers in New Zealand are grow­ing – buck­ing the in­ter­na­tional trend – thanks to hu­man in­ter­ven­tion con­trol­ling var­roa, says Dr Mark Good­win, who leads the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s api­cul­ture and pol­li­na­tion team.

The high price and de­mand for manuka honey is en­cour­ag­ing api­aries to ex­pand in the face of the colony-killing mite and other threats.

But it’s un­man­aged hives that in­ter­est Good­win. Feral bee colonies, in the­ory, shouldn’t be able to sur­vive more than a cou­ple of years in the wild be­fore var­roa de­stroys them.

But there are anec­do­tal sto­ries of colonies sur­viv­ing over sev­eral years, and NZ Gar­dener mag­a­zine is help­ing find out more by call­ing on read­ers to be a part of a cit­i­zen science project.

Re­searchers at Wash­ing­ton State Univer­sity dis­cov­ered that feral bees colonies there were in­creas­ing.

Good­win sug­gests this is ei­ther due to a ge­netic change giv­ing the feral bees some nat­u­ral re­sis­tance to var­roa, or that the feral colonies are liv­ing in a way that con­ferred re­sis­tance - pos­si­bly mak­ing their nests in a tree that con­tained a nat­u­ral de­ter­rent to the mite.

Un­for­tu­nately Kiwi sci­en­tists don’t know how many feral bees were in New Zealand be­fore var­roa ar­rived, said Good­win.

He’s ask­ing peo­ple to re­port the lo­ca­tion of feral colonies and how long the colonies have been in that spot to mail­box@nz­gar­dener.co.nz.

Feral bees live in cav­i­ties like rooves, hol­lowed-out trees, man­made struc­tures, and oc­ca­sion­ally in caves.

The most ob­vi­ous sign of a feral bee­hive is bees fly­ing in and out of a hole, and there may be beeswax around the en­trance, said Good­win.

He said peo­ple can con­fuse feral bee­hives with wasp nests, as wasps also live in colonies.

‘‘Wasps don’t carry pollen, so if you see brightly-coloured balls of pollen on the legs, you know it’s a bee.’’

Can­ter­bury bee­keeper Paul Rid­den has worked in the in­dus­try for over 40 years, and when he struck out on his own in 1995 he man­aged 700 hives as a one-man band.

Now, with the in­creased work­load of var­roa con­trol, he can only man­age about 400.

Rid­den is in awe of the in­sects he works with.

‘‘You still learn about bees and dif­fer­ent things to this day,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s a pretty calm­ing in­flu­ence on you. You know, you just sort of get wrapped in the bees and what they do, and the pol­lens they bring in,‘‘ he said.

‘‘No hu­man in­ter­ven­tion can do the pol­li­nat­ing that bees can do.’’

Rachel Vo­gan, a gar­dener and gar­den writer, is a self-con­fessed bee lover who plants flow­ers to feed the in­sects.

She said gardeners can help sup­port the bee pop­u­la­tion, which in turn will sup­port gardeners by pol­li­nat­ing flow­ers and pro­duce.

‘‘What I’d re­ally like to en­cour­age peo­ple to do is to think about plant­ing flow­ers so there’s al­ways some­thing flow­er­ing… if there’s not a lot of flow­ers around bees can ac­tu­ally go hun­gry. And so they can ac­tu­ally die over win­ter if there’s noth­ing for them to eat.’’

New re­search aims to lo­cate colonies of feral bees po­ten­tially re­sis­tant to var­roa mite.

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