Auckland Urban Apiarist a “Great Ambassador”
Auckland beekeeper Kim Kneijber has a major commitment to beekeeping education and has been prominent in the region inspecting hives as an Authorised Person 2 (AP2), earning herself the American Foulbrood (AFB) Pest Management Plan Agency’s inaugural “Great Ambassador Award” for the Northern region this year. Maggie James chats with the hobbyist-turned-semi-commercial beekeeper about urban beekeeping, industry training, hobbyist-commercial beekeeper relationships and her beekeeping journey.
Twenty years ago Kim Kneijber would have laughed at the suggestion she would become a beekeeper. Total knowledge at the time was that bees make honey and they sting. However, at the advent of Varroa destructor in New Zealand, there was much publicity that bees would die out due to the parasite and Kneijber didn’t want to see that happen. That’s when she found another “beekeeper” to assist her ideology.
From this elderly beekeeper Kneijber got second hand gear and was given the opportunity to take over an apiary. She was thus thrown in the deep end and became a member of the Auckland Beekeepers Club (ABC) to extend her knowledge base in the quest to save bees and fight varroa.
The first year of beekeeping was followed by an AFB Recognition course. It then dawned on Kneijber that she needed to promptly inspect her colonies because she had AFB! Kneijber had been constantly swapping frames between hives, and this was not the best practise for a beginner. Consequently, six colonies and all her beekeeping woodware were burnt.
“However, I was stubborn – bees found me and since the burning event I haven’t looked back,” Kneijber says.
She trained as a hobbyist for four years, then, on an early recruitment drive for AP2s, her name was put forward by the ABC. Kneijber had the luck of working under the well-known and highly respected ex-commercial Auckland beekeeper Bob Blair during her early days as an inspector.
“Bob was delightful and he made me into a nice AP2 working alongside him. He was a good gentleman to learn from,” Kneijber reflects on the time in the early 2000s.
“Bob had many anecdotes including – it is interesting that a bee’s sex changes when it stings you, and suddenly it becomes a bastard!”
As a hobbyist Kneijber started out with nucleus colonies in the city to help occupy her free time, but once the beekeeping bug hit, she moved to semi-commercial numbers.
“I had to ask myself, ‘are you ready to do that?’. Luckily, we already had a business which, if necessary, I could fall back on. This allowed me to concentrate on my passion of bees.
"Urban beekeeping is so rewarding, because there are so many flowers for the bees. Unlike a lot of commercial beekeepers, I don’t have to rely heavily on artificial feeding. I try to get my hives to support themselves naturally.”
Kneijber and husband Gill own a lifestyle block near Auckland, but she finds the home apiary very short on honey production. These hives require artificial feeding for colony stimulation to pollinate their fruit trees.
While urban beekeeping might not allow for some of the stunning vistas of the backcountry, her apiary locations are not without their rewarding features. Such as one being on the front balcony at the top of the Auckland Town Hall, the same building in which Queen Elizabeth II and The Beatles waved to the crowd from. The royal connection doesn’t end there either, with Kneijber having visited Her Majesty’s bees at Lambert Palace and Hyde Park during a trip to England.
Kneijber has tutored beekeeping for several years post-Covid, when the government offered ‘fees-free’ Level 3 apiculture courses. For a period it was full-time work, taking five courses and providing five of her own apiaries as training sites for her students. The eight-month course for part-time students produces good hobbyists, the Aucklander believes, but recently they had a major setback.
“During Cyclone Gabrielle, this February, I lost a whole educational apiary of 17 full-depth hives – all new brood boxes with full honey supers prepared by my students for harvest. Gabrielle flooded the apiary, sweeping the hives into one lot. On the top of the pile, the only surviving colony consisted of a queen and bees. The silt covered all the frames, and there was a very fine film over honey frames. This was very demoralising for students,” Kneijber says.
She worked hard to produce a new colony for each student, and by March they all had received an established strong nuc colony, most of which got through winter, building up nicely this spring. Students had to clean everything, rebuild frames, use remaining washed honey frames, and in this instance feeding syrup. Kneijber donated much of her own wares.
“I was proud that all these students passed their course, but it would have been very easy for them to completely lose interest,” she says.
“With pride I can say that I have produced some good hobbyist beekeepers, some of whom went on to work in the commercial sector. When I am teaching, I always emphasise there is generally more than one way to undertake a beekeeping task, and each person or outfit must choose the best option for themselves.
“A student must be aware that they can read books and Facebook, but they need to read the bees in their hives and consider what support action is needed to take with each colony. It’s imperative to know how to help, what happens between visits, how to prevent disaster and what action to take.”
These days tutoring and sharing knowledge is currently only once a month at the Kaipara Coast Plant Centre with a small group using six to eight hives, some owned by the Rodney Bee Club and the others by Kneijber. The Plant Centre are very supportive in promoting which plants are good for bees and beneficial insects, plus promote Bee Aware Month. So, it’s a win-win for all.
“When in an educational apiary with a number of hives, it is good for the group to see different things in each hive, and have discussion as to the differences in colonies.”
Two decades later, Kneijber is still a supporter of the ABC, attending field days when possible, and willing to give the Club advice as The Bee Master as required.
“Personally, I also enjoy helping through club talks. It’s great to talk with other beekeepers, learning and sharing.”
Kneijber also loves tutoring classroom AFB Recognition Courses, which she believes are better learning environments for the beekeepers than the online training sessions now offered.
“By attending a classroom course participants get to see AFB in a frame. I believe, you can’t beat the hands-on educational experience of sighting a frame with cells of AFB to make visual diagnosis,” she says.
Kneijber, if called upon, can undertake Recognition Courses in the commercial sector. One such recent Course combined four commercial outfits, with some taking the exam and others the refresher. It’s a good way of making staff feel part of the responsibility to train and work together as a team and to network to support the eradication of AFB in their area.
“My aim is to not make these courses doom and gloom. The reward of discovering AFB is destroying it and not seeing it again in your hives. I try to make it a day that you are glad you came to, and participants come away with good moral.”
She has also undertaken AP2 work on the exotic Biosecurity NZ Apiculture Surveillance Programme and has been a member of Apiculture New Zealand’s Biosecurity and GIA Focus Group since 2017 – having taken her fight against bee diseases to the governance level.
Kneijber’s work for the AFB Agency was recently recognised with the Great Ambassador Award for her area, which takes into consideration positive feedback received from all beekeepers whose apiaries were inspected by an AP2.
“I am always trying to prevent some old mens' tales that hobbyists are responsible for all AFB. I see this as a huge misnomer. Hobbyists make a big investment in hives and wares that are not cheap. There has been amazing improvement in hobbyist skills because of varroa, as compared to pre-varroa.”
However, whilst hobbyist skills have improved, Kneijber has noticed big changes in equipment e.g. every year there is a new type of feeder, new bottom board, a multitude of entrance reducers and so on. All of these latest crazes are aimed at the hobbyist market and in terms of costs, this is a fact that hobbyists must be aware of.
Kneijber recognises that hobbyist bee clubs are great for beginners, but as beekeeper knowledge increases individuals outgrow the club scene, and to expand knowledge requires further networking. At the same time, she gives respect to the hard work commercial operators undertake.
“I would love to get back to bringing beekeepers together in Auckland. Maybe twice yearly, but unfortunately – for a variety of reasons – the atmosphere in the industry has changed.”
If you wish to discuss any aspect of this story with Kim Kneijber email firstname.lastname@example.org