Bees are the world's most numerous and arguably most essential livestock.
Going quietly about their buziness in farms and gardens all over the country, honey bees are directly responsible for earning us billions of dollars in gross domestic product. They make honey, of course, but more importantly they pollinate horticultural and specialty agricultural crops, and by pollinating clover they help supply the nitrogen which keeps our pasture growing – and our milk flowing. One third of everything we eat, and three quarters of the diversity, is attributable to bee pollination.
But over the last 10 years bee populations have been in decline globally. Decimated by disease and by farming methods which involve sprays, monocultures and destruction of hedgerows, bees have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
Essentially, our survival depends on bees. They need our help. What can we do about it?
Plenty, according to Leigh Reti, who runs a small bee keeping business in Pukekohe. She's been fascinated by and worked with bees for many years, and is now helping people to help bees.
“Backyard beekeeping is something everyone can do. It's easy, it's fun, it's interesting, and it's something we can all do to help keep New Zealand clean and green. I thought I'd offer basic bee keeping lessons for free to anyone interested in learning. Needless to say the response has been huge.”
There's a lot to learn about bees, and Leigh says the best way to find out is to mine the wealth of knowledge available from experienced beekeepers.
“Working with John and Helen Wright and their daughter Fiona at South Auckland Apiaries, I helped get frames ready for the boxes to go on the hives and helped with the packing of their comb honey for export. Although I didn't work their hives with them, I did get to talk a lot about bees. I also talked a lot to Terry Lister, whose specialty is extracting them from trees and houses.
“I love having my own hives and working with my bees. It's very relaxing and therapeutic.”
Leigh shows people how to set up their own hives, stock them with bees, care for them and harvest the products.
“The first priority is bee health. The boxes are made with untreated timber and it's really important to avoid contaminants. It's also vital to get hives inspected and registered.”
In fact, it's a legal obligation under the Biosecurity Act 1993 to register as a beekeeper. Part of the registration process involves registering your apiaries.
Formerly protected by our geographical isolation, New Zealand bees have been invaded by imported diseases in recent years. The varroa mite slipped into the country in 2000 via a shipping container from Asia, where the mite is endemic. It soon devasted bee colonies throughout the country.
American foul brood (AFB) is anther nasty foreign invader, regarded as New Zealand's most serious honey bee disease and requiring eternal vigilance. The disease can be anywhere – it was discovered near Waiuku just before Christmas. Infected hives and equipment must be destroyed to help achieve the aim of eliminating AFB nationally.
Leigh points out that New Zealand has a huge advantage internationally as antibiotic use in bee colonies is banned here. “It means we produce a more natural product, and is better for the bees too. The biggest threat to our bees is bringing in products from overseas.”
While we do our best to be nice to bees, they don't always see us in the same light. Donning a special suit to deal with them is essential, but once properly attired there's a certain sense of security in allowing bees to buzz around one's well protected head. The thick leather gloves that go with it take a bit of getting used to though. Why are beekeepers' suits always an impractical white?
“White might attract dirt, but it doesn't excite the bees. Sometimes black ones are worn at night, for the same reason,” Leigh explains.
Backyard beekeepers can enjoy experimenting with their own bee products. Leigh makes candles, lip balms and body rubs from the wax, and mead from the honey.
“You're never short of something to make into a gift when you have bees.”
Hives affected by disease are further weakened by food shortages, so one thing everyone can do to help is to provide bee food in the form of flowering plants and trees.
“A good food supply close to hives makes a huge difference,” says Leigh. “Bee gardens can be planted anywhere, at schools, in hedgerows, anywhere there's a space, to provide a year round source of pollen and nectar. Gardeners and orchardists just need to be very careful what products they use on their plants to avoid poisoning the pollinators. Even wasps are useful – they pollinate things the bees don't.
“I'd love to see bee-friendly sprays available, and labelled as such.
“There's a ton of advice available on being bee-friendly, including what to plant and cultivation advice. Franklin has a thriving beekeepers' club full of friendly people happy to share their knowledge.”
Leigh is looking forward to getting more hives into people's lives. Some of those who have attended her courses are already set up with theirs.
“I hope I can shed some light on the exciting world of bee keeping. I just want to steer people in the right direction and give them an insight into keeping bees.
“I love it, and helping others to love it.”