Alanah Eriksen

Alanah Eriksen is the New Zealand Herald's property reporter, and assistant chief reporter.

Wipeout threat for NZ bees

Beekeeper fears devastating colony collapse disorder may have arrived.

Bees in New Zealand are already under threat from the varroa mite. Now there are fears the colony collapse disorder may be here. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Bees in New Zealand are already under threat from the varroa mite. Now there are fears the colony collapse disorder may be here. Photo / Brett Phibbs

An Auckland beekeeper who has set up 300 hives around the region says his insects have started dying at an alarming rate.

He believes a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), which has wiped out bees and reduced food crops around the world, may have reached New Zealand.

Bees are already increasingly under threat from the varroa mite as it becomes more resistant to pesticides.

Since the blood-sucking parasite arrived in New Zealand in 2000, colonies of wild bees have all but disappeared and the pollen industry - worth at least $5 billion to the economy - is now totally dependent on beekeepers.

But Kerry McCurdy, of Beez Things, which provides the highest number of hives across Auckland, says customers started calling last week saying their bees had disappeared.

Only 10 of the 50 hives he had collected had live bees left.

The company was having to downsize to deal with the problem, stopping its operations in West Auckland and south of the city.

Mr McCurdy said it could be the country's first reported case of CCD, a term first coined in 2006 in North America, where some beekeepers reported losses of up to 90 per cent. A cause for the disorder has not yet been discovered.

Byron Taylor of AsureQuality, a government biosecurity company, said there was no requirement for beekeepers to report the disorder under the Biosecurity Act as it was not classified as a disease.

"We don't know what causes it," he said.

"But mostly when colonies die here, we've been able to explain why."

The National Beekeepers Association president Barry Foster said New Zealand "had the precursors for the disease", such as pathogens and more intensive farming which was wiping out other forage for bees to pollinate.

"All kiwifruit need bees to pollinate them and every apple, every carrot seed, clover - all of those sorts of things are vital to our horticulture and agriculture economies."

Over the past year, the varroa mite had become stronger, he said.

"Our ability to control it has been easy up until now; it's going to get more difficult. People are going to have to get smarter in the way they manage their hives.

"We are getting cases now of it showing signs of resistance to synthetic chemicals treatments we use to control it, and that was predicted following patterns overseas."

Bee deaths

What is colony collapse disorder?
A phenomenon in which entire bee colonies disappear. It is not known what causes the disorder. It has wiped out bees and reduced food crops around the world.

What happens if it reaches New Zealand?
Anything that affects pollinators has a considerable effect on the fertility and functioning of the entire ecosystem.

What else threatens our bees?
Honeybees' biggest enemy is the varroa mite. It was first reported in the country in 2000 and is thought to have arrived via a live bee. The blood-sucking parasite can replicate only in a bee colony. It has all but killed off wild bees and the industry is now dependent on beekeepers.

What can be done to save the industry?
The National Beekeepers' Association is encouraging people to keep hives in their backyards. Scientists overseas are researching stronger pesticides and trying to breed bees resistant bees.

- NZ Herald

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