There has been endless publicity over the past few years about bees disappearing from the earth. While this is true in some parts of the world, in New Zealand we have the opposite problem.
Beehive numbers have more than doubled since 2000 with the greatest expansion in the past five years. There has been a large increase in hobbyist beekeepers, there are new commercial beekeepers and other beekeepers have increased hive numbers. The biggest change, however, is the establishment of corporate-type beekeeping and that is changing the nature of beekeeping and putting the country at huge risk.
Honey is the lifeblood of the beekeeping industry but for the New Zealand economy it is insignificant compared with the value of honeybee pollination. Without honeybees there would effectively be no stonefruit, no pipfruit, no avocados, no berryfruit, no blueberries and no kiwifruit. A huge loss to the economy but again insignificant compared with the most valuable crop pollinated by honeybees in New Zealand - clover pastures.
The corporate beekeepers are trying to take over Hawke's Bay. They have no interest in pollination of clover or anything else. They focus only on manuka honey production and are taking over business and bee sites. The local beekeepers used to supply hives for crop pollination and clover flowers but the corporates do not. The corporates push thousands of hives into limited spring sites which beekeepers have used for generations to build up hives for pollination. The sites are overstocked. This is a serious problem leading to weaker hives, disease, increased costs and inability to get hives up to pollination standards.
Traditionally, beekeepers respected one another's apiary sites because not to was unethical, uneconomical and just plain stupid. Accepted distances between apiaries were originally two miles but are now down to 2km as established beekeepers try to combat corporates ignoring ethics and common sense. In many cases corporates are jamming hives in within a few hundred metres of existing apiaries in the hope that if someone has bees there it must be a good place - bad enough with normal-sized apiaries but disastrous with apiaries 10 times bigger. They approach farmers and offer deals based on these inflated hive numbers that local beekeepers cannot match - because the local beekeeper has the history to know what an area can sustain. Borrowed money is being used to force out local beekeepers.
One Hawke's Bay beekeeper lost a site to a corporate which offered a costprofit-sharing agreement. At the end of the season the farmer got a bill for $15,000. That's what happens when you put 200 hives where there should be 24. I assume farmers are occasionally paid what they are promised but I have lost count of the excuses I have heard for non-payment and promises not kept.
I was talking to a farmer at the farmers' market last week and he was irate that hives had been dumped on a neighbouring farm. When he asked the neighbour if he was aware there were already bees on his property he was told yes but the new beekeeper had told them that beekeepers didn't mind other beekeepers being that close. Newsflash: they do! No farmer would like to feed 500 extra cattle dumped on their farm or a few thousand extra sheep.
I was talking to a farmworker who can't run down his own road for rugby training any more - because a corporate beekeeper has dumped a huge site right beside the road - too lazy and too ignorant to manage correctly for public safety. I had another complaint that a corporate asked a lifestyle block owner for permission to put a few hives on their property - next morning 40 hives arrived.
Of even more concern are reports of standover tactics being used to force existing beekeepers out of areas. There is talk of threats to use hive dumping to overrun the area if beekeepers do not sell up to the new corporate.
New Zealand's economy needs honeybees for pollination. A few local beekeepers do still make hives available for orchard and crop pollination. They charge for this service but it would be better economics for them to just produce honey. These beekeepers continue to provide hives because they look at the long-term picture and they care about Hawke's Bay. They also try to ensure hives are available for farmers with clover pastures. BEEWARE - they are being bought out or squeezed out at an alarming rate. These beekeepers need farmers and landowners to support them. Check with your local beekeeping firms. Check with your neighbours. Don't accept bribes and false promises.
Honey prices are very high - particularly for manuka honey.
They are not high enough to compensate the growers and farmers of Hawke's Bay should the traditional beekeeper disappear, leaving no one to provide honey bees for pollination.
- John Berry is chairman of the Hawke's Bay hub of APINZ. He has been a full-time commercial beekeeper for more than 40 years and runs his own beekeeping business as a sole operator.
- Views expressed here are the writer's opinion and not the newspaper's. Email: email@example.com