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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Beekeeper Life Satisfaction Worst of Primary Industries

“How ya going?” – it’s a well-worn line among New Zealanders, frequently ‘asked’ rhetorically as a greeting. However, in recent years there has been a move towards asking similar such questions empirically, to gather wellbeing data. Now, following the 2023 Colony Loss Survey, many Kiwi beekeepers have given their answers, and the results paint a picture of comparative struggles.

Compared to other primary industries, and New Zealand’s population as a whole, commercial beekeepers are not ‘going’ as well. Despite this, apiarists are still deemed to have ‘high’ life satisfaction as determined by the World Health Organisation.

The 2023 New Zealand Colony Loss Survey was conducted between September and November, with questions of beekeeper wellbeing introduced for the first time. Overall beekeeper wellbeing was surveyed, as well as eight different factors which may impact an apiarist.  While full data are not yet publicly available, the results from the measure of life satisfaction has been returned to Apiarist’s Advocate.

The Cantril Ladder is widely used to measure subjective wellbeing. Using a ladder as a metaphor in which the bottom step (labelled ‘0’) represents ‘worst possible life’ and the top step (labelled ‘10’) indicates ‘best possible life’, respondents are prompted ‘on which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?’ This measure is widely used to measure life satisfaction, with scores of six and above indicating ‘high’ life satisfaction.

In New Zealand 43% of all registered beekeepers completed the survey, reporting on more than 35% of all registered colonies, with this study focusing on the 235 respondents who identified as commercial beekeepers.

The average score returned by those beekeepers for the Cantril Ladder is 6.18, substantially lower than for New Zealand’s population as a whole, which scored 7.12. It is also lower than five other primary industries surveyed in 2023. Among them, forestry returned the best score of life satisfaction, 7.43 on the Cantril Ladder, followed by horticulture (7.17), sheep and beef farming (6.92), arable farming (6.79), then dairy farming which was the previous lowest scoring primary industry at 6.52.

Landcare Research’s Pike Stahlmann-Brown leads the Colony Loss Survey, as well as the Survey of Rural Decision Makers which returned the wellbeing data for the other primary sectors in 2023. The genesis for the concept of including wellbeing questions in a survey of beekeepers was back in 2021, when the first surveys of primary industries were conducted, Stahlmann-Brown explains.

“What was interesting in 2021 was, the national mood on rural issues felt quite down to me, but when you compared the farmers, foresters and growers to the general population, wellbeing was almost identical. That was a mystery to me. Digging deeper, there were a lot of people whose wellbeing was fine, but they were under the pump quite a bit and they had stressors, particularly around the regulatory environment. That survey was repeated in 2023 and we really tried to unpack the regulatory concerns to determine what it is about regulations that are affecting people,” Stahlmann-Brown says.

“It got me starting to think about how beekeepers might be different to dairy farmers, horticulturalists, or growers. What is going on in the regulatory environment for beekeepers? If you go along to beekeeping conferences you will hear people talking about honey prices being down and compliance being up, so it seemed like a natural extension to focus on beekeepers, just as we had focused on others in primary industries in the past.”

Including questions in the survey based off the Cantril Ladder measurement was a no-brainer he says.

“It’s a great measure and there is a robustness to it. You are not comparing yourself to just one thousand other people in another country, this measure has been asked of tens of millions of people.”

The Cantril Ladder measure is routinely included in nationally representative surveys undertaken in more than 160 countries; these data are reported in the annual World Happiness Report. Factors reflecting local context have been shown to strongly influence average scores. For example, wealthy Finland and Denmark reported the highest average scores in 2022 at 7.80 and 7.57, respectively, with New Zealand coming tenth at 7.12; respondents in Afghanistan reported the lowest average score at 1.86.

As a reference point, New Zealand commercial beekeepers’ score of 6.18 would rank 42nd in the global context of wider populations, below Latvia, but above Bahrain.

Apiarists scoring the lowest of New Zealand’s primary industries does not come as a surprise to Stahlmann-Brown.

“People working in rural sectors tend to score lower because they are dealing with uncertainties such as weather, regulation and changing prices, but for beekeepers I think all of those are amplified again. A lot of prices in primary industry have been down, others up, but honey has been down for several years now. You can still do a lot of farming in the rain, but you can’t do beekeeping in the rain. So, a lot of those stressors are more ramped up for beekeepers,” Brown says.

The Colony Loss Survey was conducted following the worst honey production season in many beekeepers’ memory, with Ministry for Primary industries predicting the total national honey crop to be 12,000 tonnes in 2022-23, 45% down on the previous year. It was also a year where an estimated 8000 beehives were destroyed on the east coast of the North Island by Cyclone Gabrielle and associated flooding.

Pike Stahlmann-Brown says it was a natural extension to introduce questions of beekeeper wellbeing to New Zealand’s Colony Loss Survey.

Commercial beekeepers placing at the bottom end of the scale of primary industries’ life satisfaction was also not a surprise to Jane Lorimer, a long-time Waikato beekeeper who is president of industry group New Zealand Beekeeping Inc and has spent more than two decades representing beekeeper interests. Lorimer was heavily involved in the response to the parasitic Varroa destructor mite incursion in the early 2000s, and that is the only other time in her memory she believes beekeeper wellbeing would have been lower than now.

“The survey result didn’t surprise me, because of the financial situation many beekeepers are in,” Lorimer says.

“If it had been during the boom of mānuka honey I think it could have been a totally different result, beekeepers might have been upbeat. There are just so many who are struggling because the honey buyers are not paying and there is a hell of a lot of stress for beekeepers.”

More detailed results from the survey, as well as colony loss data, will be reported in the coming months to help further paint the picture of beekeeper wellbeing. Stahlmann-Brown says he plans to continue conducting the wellbeing portion of the Colony Loss Survey in future years, that way speculation about future events’ impact on beekeeper wellbeing can be replaced by data.

So, while beekeepers might continue to use the informal welcoming of ‘how ya going?’, the industry now has a foundation of data to empirically answer that question and determine what leads to being ‘well’.


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