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  • Chris Northcott

A Different Kind of Apiculture

Every year, millions of bumble bee nests are raised and sold to commercial buyers globally. These will last a mere matter of months before the colonies disintegrate and disperse. Chris Northcott spoke to Mike Sim, business development manager at Biobees, about why bumble bee nests are in such demand.

The beloved bumble bee is a bit of a mystery to many (honey-)beekeepers. While they have similarities to the more familiar honey bee, bumble bees are also strikingly different to what honey-beekeepers know and love. As a start, they don’t produce honey in any volume that makes harvesting it worthwhile. Second, their colonies do not overwinter, meaning continued bumble bee-keeping requires new colonies to be started from scratch. So, why do people do it?

The answer lies in horticulture – especially greenhouse horticulture. Bumble bees make excellent pollinators and are particularly in demand for avocados, kiwifruit, tomatoes, eggplants, capsicum, stone fruits, and many berry crops.

Biobees bumble bee hives are used – in conjunction with honey bee hives – to help pollinate many orchards across New Zealand, including kiwifruit.

While honey bees are regularly used for crop pollination, bumble bees have a number of distinct advantages – aside from the advantages that come from their larger size and hairier bodies. For a start, some crops, such as tomatoes, require a “buzz technique” to shake the pollen out of the long pollen tubes – a method the honey bee is unable to perform. Furthermore, bumble bees can fly in a wider range of environmental factors (rain, lower light and temperature) than honey bees, allowing them to get more pollination done on the shorter, cooler, and wetter days of spring and early summer. As such, relying on bumble bees is a bit like having “an insurance policy on the weather”, Sim explains.

The high demand for honey production can make it hard for pollination services to be acquired from honey-beekeepers, while no such difficulty exists for bumble bees. Additionally, the relocating of beehives for pollination has made kiwifruit growers nervous about the potential for beehives to spread the PSA disease.

Mike Sim, right, Biobees business development manager.

The use of greenhouses also favours bumble bees as honey bees don’t cope well in them. In addition to that, because bumble bee colonies can be started and grown any time of the year (unlike honey bees), they are available for pollination service right through the winter, when greenhouse crops are worth the most on the market. Studies are also indicating that bumble bees are far more efficient pollinators than honey bees, and that in many cases the two types of bees in fact compete with each other – resulting in higher pollination from each when both are present!

All in all, industrial scale horticulture means high levels of pollination are required and as Sim puts it, “intensive cropping needs intensive pollination for high yields”.

This is where Biobees steps in. Biobees is New Zealand’s largest supplier of bumble bees and specialises in the bombus terrestris species – the buff tailed bumble bee. The business began in the mid-1990s following the emergence of commercial bumble bee rearing overseas in the late-‘80s.

The centre of operations is in the Hawke’s Bay, while Sim works out of Pukekohe on sales, product improvement, and technical support for customers. Coming from a conservation background and equipped with an entomology (the study of insects) degree from the University of Auckland, his role sees him on the road to support growers and advise on the best use of the hives for their operation. Part of his role also sees him “going up driveways” of horticulture businesses, looking to generate sales. Many growers are not aware that bumble bee hives can be purchased commercially.

A bumble bee pollinates a blueberry flower.

The production of colonies is all done from Hastings. Between 10-15 staff work throughout the year nurturing new queens to build up tens of thousands of strong colonies ready for sale when required. These colonies are couriered quickly around the country on demand and are provided within a ready-to-go disposable hive box making for easy deployment by buyers.

The ventilated boxes contain a queen bumble bee together with her colony and brood (size dependent on development and price), sheep’s wool for internal insulation, a syrup feed solution in a bladder in the base, and a small pollen patty. All the work is done in an indoor environment, removing some challenges (like the weather) while adding others (natural environment must be recreated artificially).

Staff are trained on the job and must not be shy of bumble bees, Sim says.

“Bumble bees will buzz your face – they know where the important parts are and how to intimidate, although they are more docile than honey bees.”

The hardware they use has been upgraded over the years, reducing the direct contact between workers and bumble bees and making stings are rarer occurrence.

It may come as a surprise that the bumble bee industry is reliant on the honey bee industry. The continual and swift production of pollination strength colonies requires a substantial and continuous supply of pollen – which is provided by honey-beekeepers.

Biobees is keen to engage with people who are interested in supplying pollen, as this is sometimes a challenge for them when beekeepers focus exclusively on honey production, when weather limits supply (such as in the South Island this spring), or when other demand for pollen makes it difficult to acquire a sufficient supply.

Not all buyers of Biobees’ hives are commercial growers. Many want only a single hive for their home garden or simply for the pleasure of having bumble bees and to that Sim can relate.

“Almost everyone has a bit of a warm fuzzy feeling about bumble bees,” the entomologist says, adding, “they are a sign of spring and the break of winter, and being a more visual insect it is heartening to see them buzzing on flowers, knowing that summer is on the way.”


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