NZ's bee colonies mysteriously disappearing

MICHAEL FOX
Last updated 13:00 03/07/2014
Honey bee
DISAPPEARING ACT: Concern over the mysterious disappearance of bee colonies has promoted a national survey.

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Concern over an increase in the number of bee colonies disappearing mysteriously has prompted a national survey of the bee population.

However, considering bees are in decline globally, the Ministry for Primary Industries has told Parliament's primary product select committee the insect is in relatively strong health in New Zealand.

"New Zealand bees aren't doing too bad if you take the simple measures of counts of beekeepers and counts of hives as well as honey production which has increased, " MPI director of animal and animal products Matthew Stone said.

"But there's obviously no room for complacency given the contribution, the important contribution that bees make to New Zealand primary industries."

Bees were "critical to New Zealand's primary production", Stone said.

The National Beekeepers Association has estimated the economic value of honey bees at $5.1 billion.

But a written briefing provided to the committee showed that simply counting hives could provide a misleading picture.

While hive numbers had grown in the last decade, there had also been anecdotal reports from beekeepers that "bee colony losses from unexplained causes have been increasing", it said.

"They indicate that these losses have been masked by beekeepers dividing their hives at an increased rate to replace the hives.

"This means that simple counts of hive numbers can be misleading."

Stone told the committee that a simple count of hives was not enough to understand population patterns. Baseline information needed to be established to fully understand what was happening.

"It's very important to get a baseline measure of bee health and mortality is a very good indicator, hive mortality that is and that can be revisited in future years "

Bees were sensitive to several factors, including environmental changes, pests and diseases and pesticides while food and genetic biodiversity also affected the health of the population.

Great concern over bee health was held internationally, including in the United States, which had convened a national task force to address the population decline, and in Europe, which has banned some pesticides which were seen to be harming bees, Stone said.

New Zealand authorities closely monitored such efforts and studies, Stone said.

While the survey was yet to start, some programmes were already under way including Trees for Bees, which promotes planting of particular tree species to support the bee population, and the Better Bees project looking at bee genetics.

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