Aoife Martin: Bees thriving despite challenges for keepers

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Bees pollinate about one-third of our food sources. Photo / Glenn Taylor
Bees pollinate about one-third of our food sources. Photo / Glenn Taylor

The pesticides used to control it [Psa] are not insecticides and they are not known to affect bees ... Aoife Martin is director of biosecurity, food and animal welfare policy for the Ministry of Primary Industries.

In a recent contribution to the Herald, Sue Kedgley is correct in saying that bees are crucial to New Zealand's primary sector.

Bees pollinate about one-third of our food sources. And as New Zealand exports 80 per cent of the food it produces, it is easy to see how highly primary industries value bees.

However, Ms Kedgley was incorrect in saying the Ministry for Primary Industries is not active in the bee industry. The ministry works with industry bodies across a number of areas to ensure its ongoing health.

The ministry maintains biosecurity measures at the border, carries out annual surveillance for exotic pests and diseases, negotiates and issues export certification, co-funds a national apiary register and supports bee industry projects with funding from the ministry's sustainable farming fund and primary growth partnership.

Ms Kedgley claims there is a "lack of any nationwide system of monitoring bees in New Zealand to establish whether recent bee losses are random or part of a wider pattern".

National hive numbers and total honey production are monitored as an overall indicator of the status of the bee industry. Annually, the ministry produces an apiculture farm monitoring report which outlines honey production across New Zealand, bee products' financial returns, the number of registered hives and beekeepers in New Zealand, as well as commentary on issues and trends affecting the sector.

The 2012 apiculture report tells us the New Zealand honey crop for 2011/12 was estimated at 10,385 tonnes, up 935 tonnes (10 per cent) on the 2010/11 crop of 9450 tonnes.

The number of registered beekeepers increased 16 per cent from 3267 in 2010/11 to 3806 in 2011/12. Hives increased by 32,205 or 8 per cent over the 2011/12 year.

Ms Kedgley reports that a Bay of Plenty beekeeper suspects his hive losses were caused by pesticides used to control the disease Pseudomonas syringae pv. actinidiae (Psa) in kiwifruit orchards.

In fact, Kiwifruit Vine Health has strict controls on the use of sprays to control Psa, and Zespri tests kiwifruit from all orchards for any chemical residues.

And Psa is a bacterial disease. The pesticides used to control it are not insecticides and they are not known to affect bees in and around kiwifruit orchards or elsewhere.

The primary sprays used by kiwifruit growers against Psa are copper based products. Some of these are widely used in organic agriculture.

Overseas, there have been suggestions that the use of neonicotinoid insecticides has contributed to widespread bee colony deaths in the United States and Europe. International studies have shown low levels of these chemicals can be toxic to bees in the laboratory.

However, field studies that have investigated the link between colony collapses and pesticide usage have been inconclusive.

The United States Department of Agriculture continues to investigate the possible role of pesticides (including neonicotinoids) in causing colony collapses, but is also looking at bee nutrition, hive management and pests and diseases.

Closer to home, neonicotinoid insecticides are used extensively in Australia. Beekeepers there have not experienced beehive losses similar to those reported in the United States and Europe.

In New Zealand last year the National Beekeepers' Association surveyed its members about beehive losses. Beekeepers attributed most of their losses to varroa, starvation, and other well understood causes, rather than to "colony collapse disorder" or the use of particular insecticides.

The ministry takes potential threats to the bee population very seriously, as pollination is crucial to many sectors of New Zealand's primary industries. We will continue to monitor the results of international research around the use of insecticides and bee mortality rates.

If credible evidence emerges showing the use of a particular group of insecticides poses a greater threat to bees than previously thought, then the ministry would support a review of their continued use.

Beekeepers in New Zealand face some challenges in maintaining the health of their bees. The varroa mite is now found throughout most of the country and the mites must be actively managed to reduce their impact on hives.

Wet and cold weather and lack of food sources for bees can exacerbate the impacts of varroa. Bee industry websites provide guidance on how to manage it.

The ministry carries out surveillance for exotic pests and diseases, testing 350 apiaries annually, plus additional samples from export bees.

Although New Zealand is a very small honey producer on the world stage, in recent years up to half of the honey produced here has been exported.

There is much potential to increase exports to new markets such as China.

Increased honey prices should see most beekeepers at least break even. Despite the ups and downs that can affect anyone in the primary industries, our bees, honey and bee products industries are faring well.

- NZ Herald

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