Gold fever has taken hold in the beekeeping industry.
The value of mānuka honey has led to unprecedented returns on marginal land, in both revenue and land value. Ironically, land once cleared for grazing is now left to revert to gorse and scrub to feed the bees.
Councils too are contributing to the planting of mānuka. In return, landowners are retiring steep or sensitive areas from grazing.
This industry has developed with controversy. We have seen a huge increase in honey related crime, including hive thefts and sabotage. We have also seen neighbours and beekeepers at war.
The insurgence of beekeepers and hives means there is more competition for sites, especially in our district. An escalating issue is boundary stacking: beehives are put on a property to give bees access to neighbouring mānuka. There is outrage that people are making money from a resource that they do not own.
Where there is boundary stacking, bees face increased foraging competition if there are other beehives in the area. Honey yield and quality suffers, so do financial returns. Bee health suffers too. Disease is spread between hives. Tardy beekeeping practices on one side of the fence affect the hives on the other.
Does the law prevent boundary stacking - unfortunately not. The law has not kept pace with the growth of this industry. There is no law which prevents boundary stacking, or specifically limits beehive numbers, in rural areas of our district.
Council bylaws vary between districts. There is a Wanganui District Council bylaw which applies to bees. Its purpose, partly, is to protect the public from nuisance and to protect the health of people and animals (including bees).
Under the bylaw, beehives in rural areas must be at least 40m from the boundary, road side or public place. There are more specific restrictions for beehives in town. Bees can fly up to 5km, so a 40m boundary set back does not prevent boundary stacking.
Under the bylaw beekeepers, and property owners that allow beehives on their property, must ensure that kept bees do not cause a "nuisance" to other people. The term nuisance is defined to mean "offensive or likely to be injurious to health".
Council officers can require the removal of hives which they consider to be dangerous, offensive or likely to injure people. The bylaw has a health and welfare focus. It does not prevent boundary stacking unless the bees or the hives cause health or welfare related issues.
Historically there was a "gentleman's agreement" between beekeepers regarding the distance between beehives. This was a moral obligation rather than a legal one, and is no longer widely observed.
If you are considering putting beehives on your property, ask around. Realistically, how many hives can your property support? It is tempting to be lured into a contract which promises a huge number of hives. Talk to your neighbours.
Could there be a profit sharing arrangement or other commercial solution? Agree on a site with your beekeeper before the hives arrive.
Until boundary stacking is regulated, it is likely that we will see more agreements between landowners and beekeepers which prohibit or limit the number of hives on a property to create buffer zones around mānuka crops. We will also see more hostilities between beekeepers and landowners where agreements cannot be reached.
Without the support of the law, the industry is reliant on people negotiating their way through boundary issues. Communication and negotiation is the best place to start, but it is not always successful. It assumes that everyone is reasonable and will do the right thing.
As the mānuka honey industry continues to grow, the regulation of boundary stacking at a national level has become essential. It is needed to rein in the rogues and opportunists and to provide certainty for people on both sides of the fence.