Government sits on its hands as honey bees die

Government sits on its hands as honey bees die

The demise of our bees would be ruinous to our agricultural nation.

I've been contacted recently by several beekeepers who are worried about what is happening to our nation's honey bees.

A Bay of Plenty beekeeper recently lost 230 of his beehives - or half of his operation. He's been beekeeping since 1981, and has never had losses like this before.

He says other beekeepers have experienced similar losses. A Northland beekeeper recently lost 900 of his 1000 hives; another has lost 400 hives, and others last year lost half of their hives.

The Bay of Plenty keeper is wondering what is causing such huge losses.

The 2012 winter was harsh, and many factors can contribute to honey bee losses -including pathogens, the Varroa mite (which weakens the immune systems of bees and puts them under stress) and more intensive farming that is wiping out forage and natural food sources for bees.

But he suspects the main cause of his losses is the cocktail of pesticides and chemicals that are used in many kiwifruit orchards where bees pollinate. Since the advent of the kiwifruit disease PSA, growers are using even more pesticides on kiwifruit orchards, and he is concerned that some growers, in their desperation to control the disease, have resorted to using illegal as well as legal pesticides and other chemicals.

He has therefore taken the difficult decision to pull his beehives out of kiwifruit orchards altogether (where they have been pollinating for years) because he won't be able to sustain his business if he experiences similar bee losses next year.

Another amateur beekeeper who contacted me claims there are almost no bees in Auckland. He has filled his garden with bee-friendly plants - but to no avail. He says he has never seen so few bees in Auckland.

These beekeepers are not worried only about the bee losses they have witnessed over the past year. They are also worried about the Government's lack of action to help beekeepers, and the lack of any nationwide system of monitoring bees in New Zealand, to establish whether these bee losses are random, or part of a wider pattern.

There used to be a whole section of the Agriculture Department that was focused on helping beekeepers and monitoring the health of honeybees.

But that was disbanded during the era of deregulation, and now there is nobody in Government that beekeepers can turn to for advice, and nobody who is monitoring what is happening to the nation's bees.

There doesn't seem to be anybody within the Ministry for Primary Industries who is responsible for protecting the health of our bees, or for ensuring we don't suffer from the massive bee losses that are occurring in many countries overseas.

And there seems to be little, if any, research going on into the effect of various pesticides on bees - despite the fact that pesticides have become the prime suspect in colony collapse disorder that is decimating bee numbers in many parts of the world.

You would hope that the Government would respond with some urgency to scientific findings that a new generation of pesticides that are widely used in New Zealand are poisonous to bees, even at extremely low doses that had been assumed to be safe.

Our use of this group of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, has vastly increased over recent years. They are used to coat a wide variety of seeds our growers and farmers use, such as grass seed, rye, maize, squash, sweet corn, pumpkin and even brassica.

These "systemic" pesticides work their way up from the seed, through the plant as it grows, and into the pollen and nectar. Bees that feed on them take the residues of the pesticides back to their hives.

Unfortunately, they are powerful neurotoxins for bees, and attack their central nervous system, and cause disoriented behaviour, which is why many European beekeepers believe the toxins are largely to blame for the disastrous decline in their bee numbers.

Aside from the neonicotinoid pesticides, more than 32 pesticides that are registered for use in New Zealand are highly toxic to bees.

Even if they don't kill bees outright, they weaken their immune systems and make them more susceptible to the Varroa mite and a host of other parasites and diseases.

But the Government says it has no plans to suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or reassess their use in New Zealand. Nor does it intend to research the effect of pesticides on bees, or develop an overall strategy to protect and improve the health of our honeybees.

I hope it won't sit on its hands for too long, because it would be folly indeed to wait until bees are dying en masse before it finally decided to act.

The demise of our bees would be ruinous to our agricultural nation. If our honey bees were to decline rapidly, or even disappear, we would be faced with an environmental and ecological disaster, a horticultural industry in crisis, food shortages and escalating food prices.

Why would the Government risk all this, instead of taking precautionary action before it is too late?


Sue Kedgley