A Kāpiti Coast mechanical engineer is co-investing with the Ministry for Primary Industries' Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund to explore an innovative solution to Varroa mite infestations in beehives.

Mark Keown from Cooling Solutions – who's also an amateur beekeeper – will design, build and test 14 Varroa elimination units (VEUs).

These will be modelled on the enclosures his company ordinarily builds to prevent outdoor electronic gear from overheating.

"The product I'm building will be placed in the hive. It will use sensors to measure the amount of miticide (a fumigant used to kill Varroa mites) that circulates around the hive. The miticide will be released automatically, at a level that is non-toxic to bees."

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Keown explains that weather can have a major impact on conventional treatments, causing inconsistent or inadequate dosages throughout hives.

"The new product will offer more effective and longer-lasting treatment by compensating for factors like wind, air pressure, humidity, solar radiation, bee activity and temperature."

VEU testing. Photo / Supplied
VEU testing. Photo / Supplied

Landcare Research's 2018 Colony Loss Survey reported an overall loss rate in winter of 10.2 per cent amongst beekeepers who participated in the survey.

Of that, 23.1 per cent was 19.5 per cent was due to suspected Varroa.

According to Keown's calculations, the cost to New Zealand beekeepers in mitigations to combat Varroa and lost honey production is more than $1.46 million per annum.

The potential benefits of this new Varroa management method are significant, said Steve Penno, Director Investment Programmes at MPI.

"If we are able to reduce beehive losses and improve bee health in this country it would be a major boost to the apiculture industry – and would ensure New Zealand continues to produce a premium export product."

VEU rebuilding. Photo / Supplied
VEU rebuilding. Photo / Supplied

About Varroa

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• Varroa is the number one cause of hive failure worldwide.

• A recent Ministry for Primary Industries survey found the bee colony loss rate in New Zealand has increased from 8.4 per cent to 10.2 per cent from 2015 to 2018.

• The four most common causes of entire colony failures (deaths) in New Zealand were queen problems, Varroa mite infestation, starvation of bees, and wasps.

• Varroa is suspected to account for 19.5 per cent of colony losses, with 35.5 per cent due to queen problems.

• Some queen problems may be a result of chemical treatments targeted at Varroa.

• In 2012, the then Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) estimated the cost of Varroa to the New Zealand apiculture industry at between $400 million to $900 million over 35 years.

• Using the $400 million estimate results in a loss of $11.5 million per year.