Pat Baskett learns valuable lessons about the importance of bees by keeping hives of her own, as a Covid-related quirk sees an uptick in New Zealand’s flourishing honey exports

First kill the queen. Actually, finding her can be the hardest part. If you’re lucky she’ll have been marked with a tiny white crown or a dob of twink. A quick squeeze does it – if you’re not squeamish.

We decided to keep her as a reserve and imprisoned her, along with half a dozen escorts, in an improvised cage. Hives have been known to reject their replacement monarch, leaving you with a swirl of distraught bees buzzing around the hive.

So her life was limited anyway but finally dispatching her when her rival was happily installed, seemed a merciless, materialist act. Yet it’s what most beekeepers do every two years. A queen may live for four but the number of eggs she lays decreases as she ages.

Nature, who always looks after her own, ensures that this happens within the hive when the bees decide their ageing queen needs replacing, in a process known as supersedure. To do this, the workers feed a newly-laid egg with royal jelly and this magic substance turns what would have been a worker bee into a queen larva.

Before the larva hatches, the wise old one will leave the hive in a swarm, taking half the population with her. If she doesn’t leave she will be killed by her daughter. Thus, replacing the queen can prevent the loss of a substantial part of a hive through swarming.

Our new queen arrived via a courier in a small plastic box called a queen cage, along with half a dozen escorts. The cage had holes which allowed her pheromone, or scent, to infiltrate and familiarise the hive, once we put her in. One end was blocked by a piece of candy, which provided sustenance and which, when consumed, freed up the exit.

She arrived already fertilised. This may have been achieved naturally. Queens fly 30m high and receive a lifetime’s supply of semen from drones which expire in the act of mating. Or she may have been artificially inseminated. This process involves a very fine syringe and popping the drones like tiny balloons….

We hope she will lay 1000 to 1500 eggs a day – approximately the equivalent of her own body weight. To do this she will be groomed, cleaned and constantly fed royal jelly by the workers.

Re-queening is a core part of a commercial beekeeper’s routine. It also provides a livelihood for apiarists who raise queens as a sideline to honey production – not only for our own beekeepers. In 2019, 2730 queens were flown to Canada where New Zealand has long had an export market for bees because queens raised here in autumn arrive in the Northern Hemisphere spring.

The 2019 figure for queens was a 74 percent increase over the previous year and along with 20,361 packages containing 1kg of bees and one queen, the future for such exports would have been strong –  but for Covid. All the direct flights to Vancouver, on which transport depended, were halted in 2020.

The effect of Covid appears to have been the opposite on our flourishing honey exports. Last year these increased by 52 percent more than in 2019. There is no question, notes Apiculture New Zealand (APINZ), that key honey importers looked to New Zealand in 2020 to service an increase in demand.

APINZ describes the increase as “a quirk driven by Covid-related demand for food products associated with health and wellness”.

Exports to the UK were 24 percent up and prices rose from $24/kg to $28/kg. We also exported more to the USA, Singapore and especially to Germany and Japan.

The increased demand is not due just to the popularity of mānuka – multiflora honeys also enjoy a reputation for good quality.

The 2019-20 season produced 27,000 tonnes of honey, which was approximately twice as much as the amount of honey sold. The discrepancy is significant because APINZ estimates the total volume of honey stored to be in excess of 30,000 tonnes – nearly three times the volume of honey exported in 2020 – and these lingering volumes, they note, will likely impact prices paid to beekeepers.

Key honey importers looked to New Zealand in 2020 to service an increase in demand. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

As a consequence, the domestic retail price of honey has fallen by almost a dollar. Not that I, and several thousand other suburban beekeepers, who extract their own, are affected. There are 918,026 hives in the country – the number has doubled between 2014 and 2019 – and 9,282 beekeepers. More than half of these have five hives or fewer and are classed as hobbyist or semi-commercial. Another 2000 look after fewer than 50 hives.

The number of large operators, of 3000 or more hives, has remained steady at a mere 49.

Strict records of hives and beekeeper operations are kept, especially since APINZ decided to attempt the elimination of American Foulbrood disease. This scourge has been in the country since the 19th century and can be partially controlled by the use of antibiotics. But the decision was taken here not to go down that track. Thus, every hive must be inspected each year and infected hives are burned.

The other scourge that has altered beekeepers’ lives is the varroa mite which has spread throughout the country (but not to the Chatham Islands!) since its arrival in about 2000. Vigilance is needed and treatment, either using synthetic chemicals or organic compounds such as oxalic acid or concentrations of thyme, needs to be regularly applied. It’s time-consuming and anxiety-ridden.

Varroa feed off the blood of their host bees and infect them with various diseases. I thought I had the mite under control until a particularly careful inspection of a hive that seemed depleted revealed the distressing sight of several pale bees with no wings. These are known as ghost bees and deformed wing syndrome is one of the conditions spread by varroa.

I opted quickly for the standard chemical treatment.

This hive had come to me as a swarm, so I knew the queen was …. well, past her prime and the best way to build up the hive was to replace her.

Beekeeping has become a conservation activity. No swarm can survive as a feral colony because of varroa. It’s a perilous situation for our pollinators and we need to take heed.

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