Auckland residents have a bee in their bonnet over poisoned hives gallery

Beekeepers in Auckland are suffering sudden mass deaths of their bee colonies.
MEGHAN LAWRENCE / FAIRFAX NZ

Beekeepers in Auckland are suffering sudden mass deaths of their bee colonies.

Auckland residents are questioning the sudden death of several backyard bee colonies in the region.

Around 200,000 bees, from hives in Howick and Botany, have met an untimely death that is surrounded by suspicion and unexplained circumstances. 

John and Sarah Champion, of Mellons Bay, have kept bees for nearly five years but recently noticed something was wrong with their two hives.

Ibrahim Mohammed is a registered beekeeper in South-East Auckland and was first to inspect the poisoned hives.
MEGHAN LAWRENCE / FAIRFAX NZ

Ibrahim Mohammed is a registered beekeeper in South-East Auckland and was first to inspect the poisoned hives.

"Last week we noticed the bees were crawling around on the ground," John says.

"We assumed they were old ones which had gone out to die, but in the following days we noticed that nothing was happening in the hive, so we phoned our beekeeper and said we had a problem."

Three kilometres down the road, Claire Naylor was having a similar problem at her Botany property.

Claire Naylor, with daughter Zoey Myers, 7, are disappointed to have lost a whole colony of bees after only a few months.
MEGHAN LAWRENCE / FAIRFAX NZ

Claire Naylor, with daughter Zoey Myers, 7, are disappointed to have lost a whole colony of bees after only a few months.

"About two weeks ago we noticed the hive went really quiet," she says.

"That coincided with it being really cold so we put it down to that to start with, but the hive didn't recover even when we had sunnier days."

Registered beekeeper Ibrahim Mohammed was called to both properties and was shocked at what he found.

Peter Alexander, the chief executive of BeezThingz.
SUPPLIED

Peter Alexander, the chief executive of BeezThingz.

"The bees had completely vanished from the hives even though there was plenty of food and no mite problem," he says.

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"I checked the hives about two to three weeks before and they had lots of bees, with lots of honey for winter and the queens were laying perfectly.

"It's basically like everything was working fine and then all of a sudden something happened and there was no activity at all."

Sarah Champion, and husband John, have lost around 140,000 bees from two hives.
MEGHAN LAWRENCE / FAIRFAX NZ

Sarah Champion, and husband John, have lost around 140,000 bees from two hives.

Mohammed says it was also strange that there weren't any other bees trying to "rob" the hives.

"Normally if a hive is left empty with lots of honey, other bees will come and rob it, but no other bees were interested in the honey, so it shows there was something wrong."

Mohammed believes the sudden mass deaths could possibly be attributed to council-contracted spraying of noxious weeds.

"We were given a clue that this was the cause because we saw moth plants dying off at the reserve opposite Claire's house, otherwise we would have been left wondering what happened," he says.

John Champion says he was horrified to learn the bees may have been poisoned unintentionally.

"We're meant to be promoting a clean, green, livable image, but if something is killing bees, then not only is the owner penalised but it could be affecting crops."

The Auckland Council's head of H&S quality assurance and environment, Mike Tucker, says its contractors spot-apply herbicides as a form of pest plant control in Auckland parks three to four times a year.

"The herbicides used for work in this area are all approved by the Environmental Protection Authority [EPA] and are not recognised as being toxic to bees," he says.

"If there was evidence that suggested a herbicide was causing new environmental impacts such as the death of bees, these would be reported to the EPA."

He says the contractor working within South-East Auckland is Downer and the EPA-approved herbicide its uses is glyphosate.

Peter Alexander, chief executive of beehive management service BeezThingz, says he has received at least 10 reports of bees dying in Auckland this season.

He says glyphosate alone isn't the problem, but he suspects a lethal combination of herbicide, pesticide and fungicide could be to blame.

"If glyphosate is sprayed on its own, on to something that isn't flowering, then it makes no difference to the bees.

"But if you spray an insecticide mixed into the glyphosate, and onto plants that are flowering, then you will kill the bees."

Alexander says a household insecticide used frequently to treat insect invasions on broccoli and cauliflower could also be a culprit.

"Fipronil is a powerful insecticide found in off-the-shelf insecticides and is highly toxic to bees.

"The fact that there were no dead bees found inside the hives points to a very powerful insecticide being used within three to five kilometres of the hives."

He says a contractor working at Pigeon Mountain, Pakuranga, was caught spraying berms with a mix of glyphosate and fipronil earlier on in the season.

"He killed several hives on the south side of the mount."

BeezThingz beekeepers are collecting and testing samples of recent dead bees to get more clarity.

Alexander says the destruction of bee colonies is not only heartbreaking for the owner, but also comes with several monetary losses.

"Firstly you lose the colony, which on average is about $400-$500 for just the bees.

"But then also comes the loss of production, so the loss of honey that the bees aren't bringing in.

"If it's poisoning then we can't use the honey, we have to destroy it. That again is a loss in the hundreds of dollars."

He says the public needs to be made aware of these dangerous products.

"Products that kill insects are sold in most garden centres, supermarkets, and online with little or no warning to the vast and often devastating effect to the local ecosystem that come with its use.

"We need to get these products out of reach of the uninformed consumer as the impact is far greater than our regulators seem to realise."

BeezThingz's message to contractors and urban gardeners is: "If you need to spray it's best to choose organic insecticides like neem oil or a solution of water and diatomaceous earth, and only ever spray what is not in flower."

  • To learn more about how to support local ecosystems, go to beezthingz.co.nz.

 - Stuff

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