Training for beekeepers debated
An upsurge of interest in beekeeping has sparked debate about how well trained new entrants are.
The number of beekeepers has grown by more than 500 to 3775 and hives by 35,000 to 429,000 over the last year, many of them hobbyists wanting to do their bit to help boost bee numbers in the face of growing threats to their health.
While the increase has been welcomed by industry players, it has placed pressure on those who train newcomers and raised questions about the effectiveness of a voluntary, user-pays approach at a time when bees are at risk from more diseases.
At present beekeepers are required to register their hives under the American Foulbrood Pest Management Strategy, although up to 20 per cent don't. They must get their hives inspected every year by someone holding a Disease Elimination Conformity Agreement (DECA) and if the highly contagious bacterial disease American Foulbrood is found it must be reported and the hives and all woodwork destroyed within a week.
However, only 60 per cent of registered beekeepers hold a DECA, which American Foulbrood Pest Management Strategy agency manager Rex Baynes said was not good enough, although an improvement on the 48 per cent registered five years ago.
A DECA - granted after a straightforward and low cost one- day course on disease identification and elimination - should be regarded by beekeepers as their driver's licence, he said.
While the reported level of disease was just 1.8 per cent of hives - the lowest it had been since 1998, Mr Baynes said the actual rate was much higher because beekeepers either failed to let the authorities know or hadn't registered their hives.
The big increase in beekeepers and hives was straining the system and making checking compliance more challenging, he said.
"We are effectively treading water, although we would like to think we are slowly making inroads."
A budget of just over $350,000 from a levy on beekeepers and apiaries didn't go very far in paying people to run disease- recognition courses, Mr Baynes said. "We get no government funding, it's user pays."
Federated Farmers bees spokesman John Hartnell said new beekeepers should have to undergo two years of training before they were allowed to own their own hives and a DECA should be compulsory.
Professional standards had to be higher, he said.
"I'm not sure we are teaching them very much.
"In Europe it takes two years to get your beekeeping licence."
Aspiring beekeepers should have to join a hobbyist club or industry organisation and work with an instructor to prove their competence, he said.
The agency was doing a good job with limited funds, but needed more money and help on the ground from experienced beekeepers, Hartnell said.
National Beekeepers Association president Barry Foster said the industry had made progress in promoting the need for better biosecurity among beekeepers through courses, workshops and inspections of hives in high-risk areas by AsureQuality, which was contracted to carry out the AF strategy.
"We have got some very good bee clubs around the country that have training sessions and I would urge any hobbyist to join one."
Education was the key to disease control, but the influx of new beekeepers had brought some headaches and he personally supported making a DECA mandatory after a probationary period, Foster said.
However, Baynes doubted a licensing system would work.
"Some beekeepers only want to have a hive or two in the back garden and can't be bothered by what they see as bureaucratic rubbish. They will go underground and won't tell anyone they have got a hive."
Scott Williamson, president of the Nelson Beekeepers Club, agreed, saying regulation was a blunt tool.
"Disease prevention is incredibly important but as soon as you start making things compulsory you turn people off."
American Foulbrood was such a catastrophic disease, which could spread easily to neighbouring hives, that it required people to be open when they suspected they had it, he said.
"We had a couple of hobbyists burn their hives this year. We work very hard to destigmatise it. It's not something you should be punished for."
Most beekeepers wanted to comply and the way to improving that was making information and training more widely available, he said. At present the club was only able to run two courses a year and relied on volunteers to help out.
The club, which had grown to more than 80 members in just over two years, talked about varroa and AF at every meeting, mentored newcomers and encouraged them to get their DECA, he said. It stressed that bees were like looking after livestock and were not "ornaments in the corner of your garden".
He said the focus should not fall only on hobbyists and questioned whether every field staff member of commercial beekeeping firms held a DECA.
NBA Nelson president Frazer Wilson and one of three trainers in the top of the south said there had been a noticeable spike in AF in Golden Bay over the last year which underlined the need for everyone to register their hives and get educated about disease prevention.
While novice beekeepers often didn't want to spend a lot of money, courses were cheap, he said. It was ironic that more people with an environment conscience wanted to help by having bees in their garden, but they risked making their plight worse by not checking for disease, Wilson said.
Private training provider Agribusiness is one of the few to run comprehensive courses for beekeepers in the country. They last for 10 months, cover everything from assembling a hive to extracting honey, and cost just over $500.
Its Nelson tutor and long-time beekeeper, Nigel Costley, said they provided an excellent practical introduction and he could see several of his latest intake of 11 students, who ranged from townies to farmers, becoming commercial beekeepers.
Such courses were becoming increasingly important as the industry looked to expand its pollination services, however it was a concern that skills and training were "all over the place".
New Zealand remained "light years away" from what was required in other countries "where you wouldn't dream of using a beekeeper unless they showed you their training background", Costley said.
The Nelson Mail