Bees are among the hardest workers on the farm and in the garden, because they work constantly to pollinate clovers, garden flowers and many crops, and they produce marketable products such as honey.
Nationwide, the benefits of the pollination they do flow on to livestock production and the meat and dairy industries. They are extremely important to agricultural and horticultural businesses.
However, their numbers are falling and this is a real cause for concern.
It's not an exaggeration to say that to help ensure the future of farming, all farmers need to play their part in protecting the honeybee.
What good could they do on your farm and in your garden?
While they are gathering pollen and nectar from clovers, fruit trees, garden flowers and many horticultural crops, bees move pollen from one plant to another, pollinating the plants as they go. This is necessary if the plant is to produce fruit and seed.
What is threatening bees?
While all the reasons for dwindling bee numbers and weaker hives are not fully understood we know three factors that are contributing:
- dwindling flower numbers
- the use of insecticides on the farm and in the garden
- pests and diseases that weaken and kill bees
Not so long ago, bees got much of their pollen from broom, gorse and willow, and the pollen was very nutritious for hives. These plants are now classified as pests by councils and the Department of Conservation, so there are fewer of them around. This means that in many areas, there is less pollen and therefore honeybee hives are weaker.
Insecticides can take their toll on bee numbers. Reducing bees' exposure to insecticides requires an understanding of the risks so that you can try to avoid them.
- Try to avoid applying insecticides to flowering crops or weeds during daylight hours when bees are foraging.
- Pesticides vary in their toxicity to bees and different formulations, even of the same pesticide, can have variable toxicity. Try to select granular products rather than dusts and wettable powders that may stick to body hairs on bees.
- Pesticides that degrade within a few hours of application can be applied with minimal risk when bees are not foraging. When temperatures are unusually low, insecticide residues may remain toxic for longer. Products with activity lasting more than 8 hours merit extra precautions.
- Spraydrift from the crop being sprayed can be blown downwind onto adjacent crops or weeds where bees are foraging.
- Unusually warm temperatures in the early morning or evening may result in bees foraging when they would normally be back in their hive.
- Bees forage on average within 1.5 to 3 km of their hive, but sometimes up to 8 km during a pollen or nectar shortage.
Trying to avoid insecticides may well mean some tactful negotiations with your neighbours!
The main pest problem affecting bees at the moment is the varroa mite. Once this little parasite is established in a hive it kills bee larvae and damage the bees' wings and exoskeleton.
The varroa mite is well-established in the North Island and as far south as Canterbury, and it's quite likely that it's present throughout New Zealand.
Nation-wide, efforts to eradicate it have not been successful, but fortunately bee-keepers can manage infestations in their hives by using various organic and inorganic miticides and possibly selecting bees for tolerance to the mite.
Will bees threaten you?
Some people are afraid of bees, but there is no need to fear them if they are managed by a registered beekeeper and their hives are undisturbed. They will leave you alone if you leave them alone. There are no aggressive Africanised honeybees in New Zealand.
How to acquire honeybees
The most hassle-free way of acquiring a healthy bee presence is to ask a registered local bee-keeper if he of she would like to keep a few hives on your farm.
All you need to provide is a quiet sheltered sunny corner and plenty of flowering plants.
Helpful industry websites are:
How to attract honeybees
To encourage feral bees and bees from neighbouring hives, plant or encourage bee-friendly trees and shrubs on waterway margins, in windbreaks, along field edges and roadsides and in native scrub and bush.
Fortunately a number of shelter and erosion control plants have abundant flowers to feed bees so selecting multi-purpose plants is smart farming.
To find out what plants are best for bees in your region, go to the website: http://www.fedfarm.org.nz/treesforbees
To find out where to source the plants on this list, go to http://www.plantfinder.co.nz or ask at your local nursery.