The bee team

By Meg Liptrot

For our future's sake, make bees welcome, says Meg Liptrot.

Flowers with blue petals or in colours with a blue undertone are said to particularly delight pollen-hunting honey bees. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Flowers with blue petals or in colours with a blue undertone are said to particularly delight pollen-hunting honey bees. Photo / Steven McNicholl

We've taken their busy-bee activities for granted and enjoyed the fruit of their labour so now it's time to give something back. Bee populations are in serious decline around the world, and New Zealand is no exception.

Of 100 crops that supply 90 per cent of the world's food, bees pollinate more than 70 per cent.

A recent conference at Eastwoodhill Arboretum in Gisborne revealed the importance of bees to our economy - worth $5 billion annually because of their pollination efforts in pastoral, horticultural and seed-production industries.

In New Zealand, the key factors of a decline in bee numbers include the varroa mite and associated viruses, new systemic pesticides and the loss of good pollen and nectar sources. Mass plantings of monocultural crops in farming and forestry have limited the diversity of forage plant species for honey bees and other pollinators.

A floral food source
Bees turn energy-rich nectar into honey, which provides carbohydrates for the hive.

Pollen provides protein. Honey is stored to feed the colony when needed. Research was given at the conference on the best trees for bees. Dr Linda Newstrom-Lloyd, of Landcare Research, presented her team's findings on the bee-forage potential of exotic and native shrubs and trees. They are looking for the best protein content in pollen.

Pollen's protein content can range from 6 to a little over 30 per cent. The plants that rate well on the pollen and flowering test are then screened for their ability to become environmental weeds, and whether there is toxicity in their flowers. Tutu, for example, can make us sick - beekeepers need to test their honey if this plant grows in their area. Karaka flowers, and sometimes kowhai, are toxic to bees. The plan is to narrow down a selection farmers will be happy to plant, which is also based on feedback on user-friendliness.

Bee-friendly cities?
Maureen Maxwell, founder of Beesonline and Wildforage, is regional president of the Oceania Commission of Apimondia, the international federation of beekeeper associations. She says schemes are being set up and education efforts being made from community level to councils, governments and businesses. "Plan Bee" in the UK is co-ordinating the planting of food-rich corridors for bees. In Christchurch, a city councillor is keen for 1200 hives to be dotted around the city and for a council-funded beekeeper. That will surely improve fruit production in Christchurch backyards.

The cultural norm in cities is for tidiness, manicured berms and street edges. Herbicides are reducing the possibility of even "waste" areas having diverse flowering groundcover plants. Allowing roadsides and verges to flower will increase bee habitat with little effort. A simple sign saying "bee-friendly berm" should silence critics.

Maxwell noted that wildflower meadows along our motorways were a huge hit for the brief period they lasted, but were phased out for various reasons, including members of the public picking the flowers.

I think these pretty, bee-friendly zones could be reinstated in less hazardous spots so romantic souls won't be run over while smelling the daisies.

For video from the conference see:

- Herald on Sunday

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