To bee or not to bee - does NZ have too many?
The demand for manuka honey has seen the number of bees explode here in New Zealand - despite international fears the bee population is dwindling - but it's not all good news.
New Zealand has over a million hives swarming with hungry honey bees looking for plants and trees to pollinate and collect nectar from. By comparison Australia, which is 29 times bigger, has less than half a million.
“It’s purely because of the gold rush on manuka,” says commercial beekeeper, James Harrison. He’s talking about manuka honey, which has seen the numbers of bees in New Zealand explode in the last ten years, but the amount of crop per commercial operation plummet.
“Ten years ago we’d average around 65 kg per hive,” he says. “But the last two years it’s below 20 kg. The weather’s possibly got something to do with it but it’s also because there are so many bees.”
And while Harrison says we’ve got enough bees in New Zealand, internationally there have been fears over the last few years that they’re dying off. If that were true it would be catastrophic. Bees are critical pollinators - they pollinate 70 of the roughly 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world. And if they aren’t around to pollinate we could lose all those plants ... and if we lose all those plants we could lose all of the animals that eat those plants … and on it goes. What that all means is a world without bees could struggle to sustain the human population of 7.2 billion.
In New Zealand honey bees collect nectar and pollen from at least 224 indigenous plant species. Harrison, who owns Kiwitahi Honey in Waimauku, says the revival in planting natives has been greatly beneficial for them. But not all natives are created equal when it comes to feeding the insects.
“The bees in this district forage on a variety of different nectar sources, usually starting with Manuka,” says Harrison. “Then Pohutukawa, the Cabbage tree and the Flax tree, they all secrete nectar. The Manuka is usually first so what we try to do is separate the Manuka honey off before other varieties start coming in and diluting the Manuka content.”
Harrison’s 1,300 hives predominantly provide Manuka and multiflora (bush and pastoral honey) although some years he’s able to differentiate between varieties such as Pohutukawa and Rewarewa. Later in the season it’s more the family favourite, clover honey, and the strongly flavoured pennyroyal.
He says Willow trees also have high quality pollen, as does gorse which flowers throughout the winter. “A lot of people spray it but it is the best source of protein pollen for bees during winter.”
One tree he doesn’t recommend planting is Karaka. It’s nectar is poisonous to bees. “They can handle small amounts of it but if there are a lot of Karaka trees in an area and not much else for bees to forage they’ll die. You can tell they’ve been poisoned if there’s a lot of dead or dying bees in front of a hive.”
While the growing trend for having a beehive or two in city neighbourhoods can be more of a hindrance than help to the bee population, Harrison says anyone wanting their own hives needs to register with AsureQuality. They also need to have the hive inspected annually by a registered beekeeper. The best place for a beehive on a property is in a sheltered sunny area, when thinking about landscaping ideas.
Bees produce about half a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime. Worker bees live will live for around five weeks in the summer, but up to 12 weeks in the winter, depending on how their wings last. Queen bees can live up to five years, laying up to 2000 eggs per day.