Bees' value to NZ far greater than honey

18:49, Oct 08 2012

Federated Farmers has been working with the Sustainable Farming Fund and others to understand the true pollen value of every plant available to the New Zealand bee industry. Who knows, manuka may not be the only pleasant surprise awaiting discovery.

Unfortunately, the honey bee has suffered some setbacks over the past decade, with the introduction of two serious bee pests: the varroa destructor mite and nosema ceranae. To help out the bees, Federated Farmers has developed "Trees for Bees" regional planting guides to help all New Zealanders, either urban or rural, give these busy creatures a helping hand.

Under the programme, Landcare Research is working on "Trees for healthy bees", planting demonstration farms with "bee-friendly" trees and shrubs, which allows scientists to compare and contrast the health of honey bees in mixed and monoculture farm environments.

Federated Farmers takes bee health seriously for a very good reason: a large proportion of New Zealand's agricultural success lies with the pollination work carried out by the bee.

The Federated Farmers bee industry group constantly reminds farmers about the risks of irrigation and agricultural chemicals to bee health. There are also risks in our towns.

If you need to control pests in your flower or vegetable garden, look for products which are more bee-friendly and spray at dusk when bees are not flying.

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Everyone has a part to play, because while consumers probably judge the bee industry by the honey they buy at the supermarket, the real value of New Zealand's 430,000 hives is in their role as pollinators.

Bee pollination is estimated to be worth $5 billion each year to New Zealand's economy, with much of our food, from clover-fed lamb through to our fruit and vegetables, relying on apiarists around the country.

This necessary service is being threatened globally by the little-understood colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is the biggest threat to global honey bees and many of the world's agricultural and horticultural industries.

Colony collapse disorder is characterised by the sudden death of entire hives of bees and, to date, no one has worked out the exact reason it happens.

There are several possible causes. Some theories suggest bee diseases and parasites, such as the varroa mite, combined with chemical spray residues picked up during foraging, could be to blame.

There are other theories, but colony collapse disorder's exact cause remains, for now, a mystery.

The arrival of varroa mites in 2000 was the first serious new bee threat to reach New Zealand in about a century. In 12 years, varroa has spread from Auckland to Bluff and untold numbers of wild hives have been wiped out by it, leaving the honey bee in New Zealand now dependent on humans for survival.

Two years ago we learned nosema ceranae, another major bee disease, had reached our shores.

There is a real fear that if New Zealand gets two more major bee diseases, colony collapse disorder could begin to happen here.

Australia harbours two such diseases - European foulbrood and the Israeli acute paralysis virus. The aggressive and unfarmable Asian honey bee also entered Cairns in Australia in 2007, displacing wild hives as it spread across Queensland.

For beekeepers, Australia is the single biggest biosecurity threat to New Zealand apiculture.

The diseases are transmittable through honey, and local bees could be attracted to the natural sugars and contaminated if an infected jar entered New Zealand.

We cannot jeopardise our pastoral and horticultural sectors by allowing potentially diseased honey or bee products into New Zealand.

New Zealand's bees need greater vigilance on the trade front and especially the rules around importing risk items.

With our bees under so much pressure, we need to do everything we can to help our greatest little workers.

John Hartnell is the Federated Farmers bee industry group chairman.

Waikato Times