OPINION: One of the best beekeeping quotations is attributed to Albert Einstein: "If the bee disappears... man would have no more than four years to live." He actually never said it, but the sentiment is correct.
Honeybees are in serious decline, and without their pollination work our future would be grim.
While many judge the bee industry by the honey they see at a farmer's market or supermarket, the real value of honeybees and our 430,000 hives is as pollinators, an aspect estimated to be worth $5 billion a year to our economy.
If you look at your plate tonight, anything of colour generally depends upon bee pollination.
But a disorder called CCD - colony collapse disorder - is the biggest threat to global honeybees and underscores that Einstein "quote". No one can put their finger on why a hive might suddenly die. There is suspicion the disorder could be a combination of major bee diseases and parasites with chemical spray residues picked up during foraging. There are a range of theories, but the truth is, no one knows.
Yet we should have reason for concern.
Before 2000, New Zealand enjoyed the world's healthiest bee population, with only one disease present. In 2000 the varroa destructor mite arrived, spreading from Auckland to Bluff since then. In 2010, and only weeks before PSA was confirmed in kiwifruit, we learned another disease had reached our shores - nosema ceranae.
The varroa mite resembles something out of Alien, and will hitch a ride on its victims to seek out new hives to infect. Untold numbers of wild hives have been wiped out, meaning the honeybee is utterly dependent on humans for survival.
The arrival of nosema ceranae leaves us with only two big bee threats not present, and they are only three hours away in Australia: European foulbrood and the Israeli acute paralysis virus.
For beekeepers, Australia is our single biggest biosecurity threat.
While European foulbrood and the Israeli virus pose no human health risks, they are transmittable in honey. Given bees are attracted by natural sugars, it means only one infected jar through an airport could see it enter New Zealand.
Australia now has the bee equivalent of the wasp, the Asian honeybee. Its name is a misnomer, given it is aggressive and almost unfarmable. Scarily, the first breach came as a hive in a yacht's mast, and while it was found, Australia's luck ran out in Cairns in 2007. Now endemic in Queensland, if it came here it would be an environmental catastrophe.
Even going the other way, Australia, which is varroa-free, does not want to be infected by us.
So who in their right mind would jeopardise our pastoral and horticultural sectors by allowing potentially diseased honey or bee products in? This demands greater vigilance on the trade front, and especially the rules around importing risk items.
With our bees under so much pressure, what can we do?
Federated Farmers Trees for Bees is a compilation of 10 free regional planting guides - as applicable to homes, businesses and schools, as it is to farms. Federated Farmers is also working with the Sustainable Farming Fund, and others, to understand the true pollen value of every plant available to the bee industry. Who knows, manuka may not be the only pleasant surprise awaiting discovery.
Under our programme, Landcare Research is working on Trees for Healthy Bees, with demonstration farms planted with bee-friendly trees and shrubs that will allow scientists to compare and contrast the health of bees between farms, while offering a balance of pollen-bearing plants to those with a more monocultural farm environment.
While bees are part of Federated Farmers, we constantly remind our colleagues about the risks posed from irrigation and agricultural chemicals. Yet risks exist in town too. If you need to control pests in your garden, understand what you are using, and spray at dusk, when bees are not flying.
While Einstein never said what was attributed to him, I have little doubt were he alive today, he would put his name to it. Bees matter.
John Hartnell is the Federated Farmers Bee Industry Group chair, and was a 2011 New Zealander of Year awards finalist.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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