Bee losses stinging industry

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A Dunedin beekeeper warns bee colony losses in the lower South Island could be worse than those seen in 2016.

Rentahive co-owner Murray Rixon said he would not be surprised if colony losses for the lower South Island reached between 15% or 20% by spring.

“I don’t think that would be too alarmist a figure.”

That would be more than double the 2016 losses of 7.4% for the region, as recorded by a Ministry for Primary Industries survey.

Mr Rixon estimated honey production was down between 50% and 60% for beekeepers in Dunedin.

He and wife Heidi are Taieri-based but Rentahive rents fully managed hives to clients throughout the city.

Betta Bees breeding programme manager Frans Laas said production had dropped to lower levels in areas closer to the coast because of cooler weather over the summer.

He said 20 of his own hives only produced half a box of honey each.

Most people had only produced enough to keep themselves going.

Mr Rixon’s prediction of 15-20% colony losses this year for the lower South Island was “possible,” Mr Laas said.

The lower temperatures also meant many queens were inadequately mated over the summer, putting strain on bee colonies, Mr Laas said.

Inadequately mated queens would run out of sperm earlier than normal, which meant they would stop laying fertile eggs.

There was a “significant risk” of many bee colonies dying of starvation during the winter, Mr Rixon said.

Peter Scott, who co-owns Dr Honey Ltd with nephew Philip Scott, said the overall production for his business had fallen from more than 23 tonnes last season to just under 19.5 tonnes this season.

Pastoral honey was totally dependent on weather, Mr Scott said.

“For bees, no heat no honey.”

Asked about expected colony losses for this year, Mr Scott said he expected Dr Honey’s losses would be about the same as last year.

Since the arrival several years ago of the varroa mite, a parasite which attacks honey bees, Mr Scott said Dr Honey’s average colony losses each year were between 7% and 8%.

Before then they were between 1% and 2%.

Dr Honey Ltd produced pastoral honey, mostly using clover crops, which required consistently warm temperatures over the summer for high production, Mr Scott said.

“If we get a week of settled, fine, hot weather, we’ve got a crop.

“If we get 10 days we start to get a better crop. If we’ve got two weeks we get a reasonable crop. If we get six weeks we get a bumper.”

Clover needed a soil temperature of at least 20degC before it would produce significant nectar, he said.

The reduced production was manageable for Dr Honey, Mr Scott said.

“We’ll live to fight another day.”

Production around Outram and Allanton was only a quarter of the usual output, Mr Scott said.

Despite lower temperatures, Mr Scott had managed to produce a clover honey crop by shifting hives to areas around Deep Stream.