A New Manager in Town
After five and a half years of stability at the head of the American foulbrood (AFB) Management Agency, September saw a new general manager take control of the beekeeper-funded agency tasked with eliminating AFB from managed beehives in New Zealand. Niharika Long stepped into the role on September 11, taking over from Clifton King and bringing with her 10 years of experience working with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in a range of roles, most lately biosecurity response. We caught up with the Masters-level trained marine scientist just weeks into the job to find out what beekeepers can expect from the new Agency GM.
“I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie really,” Long says of her motivation to apply for the AFB Management Agency’s top job.
For beekeepers, tasked with navigating tough terrains in New Zealand’s back country while carting heavy loads, sometimes for long hours, the connection between the almost entirely administrative role of national compliance manager for AFB and ‘adrenaline’ may not fit. However, for the purposes of Long’s line of work, it does.
“The adrenaline hit comes from successfully solving a challenging or ambiguous problem. There's a certain ambiguity in this role that I'm quite drawn to. The other thing about it is, not only just looking at this problem as just an AFB problem, it's looking at other problems that beekeepers go through.”
She lists the current economic climate, inflation, export markets, climate change and weather events, as “a lot of pressure for the industry”.
“AFB is only a tiny problem of all the other problems that the industry can face. As an ecologist, for me, it's about fitting in the different pieces of a puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle. That's what I'm drawn to.”
Long takes over at a time when, as of the latest national annual report, AFB incidence increased from 0.31% of all registered colonies to 0.46%, 2526 total cases to 3422. King and the Agency board have put the increase down to greater vigilance from both the Agency and new, more compliant, owners taking over beehives.
Whether that rose-tinted assessment proves true or not, Long understands she and the Agency have their work cut out. She believes elimination of AFB in New Zealand is possible though, but it will require beekeepers working together, and the Agency and beekeepers effectively collaborating.
“Just like a honey bee colony, the apiculture industry does not exist because of a single beekeeper. It's the collective that makes this industry thrive. This means it applies to how you run your operation, share your knowledge, manage diseases, because what affects you will affect others.
“The Management Agency consists of a very experienced team who wants to help you eliminate AFB if you have it, and also assist you with keeping it away if you don't have it, or never had it. And the way you can help us do that is, you need to be responsible for your beekeeping operation. Not only for the health of the bees, but the wider industry. It means the basics, keep up with your paperwork, check your hives, or hive, treat them accordingly. Let us know when you're moving on from the industry.”
Long says she will promote an open-door policy where beekeepers can come to the Agency at any time and communicate their needs.
“The other way beekeepers can help the Management Agency is to engage with us – whether that be for self-reporting, or if you are unsure about what you’re looking for when doing hive inspections, if you want to upskill your staff, or report non-compliance, or even if there is a novel idea that you want to share with us.”
She has experience in elimination of pests too, having worked in the post-border biosecurity response environment, including to fruit fly in 2019 in a public liaisons role and with the marine salmon farming industry for over four years on a very complex, long-standing pathogen which was affecting their stock, much like AFB does bees. Then there was her role as an operations manager for mycoplasma bovis, a response which required culling of hundreds of thousands of cattle. She helped make some of the decisions around depopulating farms of their herds as part of the role, so is familiar with making the tough decisions on the way to elimination or eradication of disease, such as AFB will require.
“I don't get flustered very easily and some of the things I have seen and pressures I have been under, you can understand why,” she says.
Prior to her work in biosecurity incursion response, Long worked aboard commercial fishing vessels as an observer for MPI. So, how will beekeepers compare to fishermen? Long believes, regardless of the industry, it goes back to the solution of effective collaboration and partnerships.
“I get that some people think fish and bees are not the same. Well, no, they're not the same. But what we're trying to work towards is quite similar. Regardless of it being an agricultural, horticultural or aquaculture biosecurity issue – and I have worked in all those industries – they are quite similar because the underlying matter is about preventing onward spread of that pest or pathogen through best practices.”
Her management style and Agency practices will differ from King’s, she believes.
“The difference between Clifton and I is that when he came in, probably a lot of the systems that we currently have were not set up and he built it up from nothing. I have massive respect for that. My challenge is, based off what he has done, how do I take it forward. How do I put my own spin on it? People are going to find that he and I have very different approaches, but it doesn't matter. We're still trying to tackle it (AFB). There are many ways to skin a cat.”
In practice, Long hopes to make communications succinct because “beekeepers are busy people, it’s a seasonal job and making things more palatable is important” and potentially highlighting the practices of “champions” – beekeepers who have had success eliminating AFB.
Those changes will slowly roll out in the coming months, but in her first few weeks in the national compliance manager role Long has put a priority on meeting the current staff and being “a sponge” for information. After she has got her feet well under the desk (which is currently a work-from-home arrangement in Wellington as Apiculture New Zealand searches for a new office base) she plans to meet with King, so she can then ask the appropriate questions. While their management styles may differ, Long says her desire to achieve elimination of AFB from managed colonies is as strong as her predecessor.
“I don't know everything about honey bees, but it's about trying to achieve something that hasn't been done before,” she says adding. “This is the New Zealand way – we try to achieve something that other people haven't done”.