New research could help bumblebee hives to live longer and be more efficient.
A project backed by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), is researching ways to protect the long-term sustainability of New Zealand horticulture, including how to enhance the performance of bumblebee hives using pheromones.
Dr Gunjan Gera of Gourmet Waiuku Limited is leading the project, supported by consultant Dr Jo Stephens.
Bumblebees were often used for pollination in berryfruit crops, glasshouses, and other covered crop areas, as the bees tended to travel only about 200 metres from their hives, Gera said.
Bumblebees also didn't mind enclosed spaces, unlike honeybees, which preferred to fly to flowers further afield, Gera said.
"In the field, the queen bumblebee of a commercial hive lives for approximately 8-10 weeks and the hive winds down once the queen dies"
With fewer worker bees, the hives could appear less active when compared to honeybees, and there could be variation in vigour and productiveness, Gera said.
"Our project will study various factors and compounds in conjunction with the bumblebee queens to see if we can extend the life of a hive to at least 12-18 weeks. If this works, we have a way of complementing nature, using a pheromone substitute."
Stephens said the technology was in its infancy overseas and commercial companies using it hadn't released much information yet.
"We're hoping to lead the way in New Zealand, but it will involve a good deal of trial and error given the limited progress globally in this area."
Stephens explained that bumblebees were introduced to New Zealand from the United Kingdom by the early pioneers, so there was limited genetic diversity.
Although commercial breeders incorporated new genetic diversity from the wild occasionally, the gene pool was limited.
Another important part of the research would be screening bumblebees for diseases, including those associated with inbreeding, Stephens said.
"We'll be looking at the levels of inbreeding in New Zealand populations to see if this is a major concern, and whether we need to consider the possibility of importing bumblebee genetics."
MPI was contributing $160,000 towards the $400,000 project through its Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures (SFF Futures) fund.
MPI Investment Programmes director Steve Penno said the project could help increase the productivity of bumblebee hives dramatically.
"Enhancing bumblebee activity would mean better pollination for growers, which means higher yields and better quality produce."
As well as the bumblebee research, the project would also look at developing technology to rear Limonicus predatory mites.
This mite was effective in controlling thrips, whiteflies, and other mites in greenhouses and protected culture systems.
While it occurred naturally in New Zealand, it was currently only reared overseas and was re-imported for New Zealand growers.
"This is expensive, time-consuming, and there's always the risk of supply shortages," said Gera.
"If we can successfully rear these mites for commercial production and release them in New Zealand it will be far more cost-effective to control pests."