Wild bees set to save our honey industry from varroa mite – but they need your help
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, part of 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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feral bees live in cavities like rooves, hollowed-out trees, man-made 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 knows the effect of varroa first-hand. He's 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 just sort of get wrapped in the bees and what they do, and the pollens they bring in, and the colours," he said.
"No human intervention can do the pollinating that bees can do."
Rachel Vogan, a gardener and garden writer, 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."
- Sunday Star Times