August is always a crucial month for Kiwi beekeepers, as many hives get their first thorough look over of a new season, but weather can be fickle. We check in with beekeepers at the top of the North Island, some who have seen a record setting wet period, and some in the colder areas of the South Island who have experienced early-spring snow dumps, to find out what the conditions mean for beekeepers and bees.
Beekeepers at the extremities of the country are reporting good bee health despite some wet and cold conditions through August. While the threat of varroa is constant, and some damage from the mite is being reported, the main concerns are getting enough warm and dry weather to open up hives, as well as to dry out the land to allow vehicle access.
In Northland, Whangarei Bee Club president and Mattersville Ltd owner Nick Watkins’ hives are not long off entering avocado pollination, then kiwifruit and berry pollination work later in September. He says it is “incessantly wet” in the Whangarei area and he is having to walk sugar syrup in to some sites to ward off the bees’ hunger and aide colony build up, because vehicles can’t make it.
“Even sites you normally have good access to all year round, we are struggling to get in to. It is unbelievable. I haven’t seen a season like this before,” Watkins says.
“NIWA is predicting El Nino (weather pattern) and things are going to dry out, but I haven’t seen it yet. I look out the window most days and it’s wet.”
Not far away orchardist and hobby beekeeper Paul Martin’s rain gauge tells a soggy story. An average year provides 1800mm of rain and, to date, 2023 has them at almost 2300mm already. More alarming, going back 12 months to August 2022, Martin has tipped 3500mm from his gauge.
“For the year to date we are sitting at 20% of average sunshine hours. It is ridiculous. Nothing is growing, nothing is flowering properly. It is freezing cold. I have been in Northland almost 20 years and this is the coldest winter I have experienced and a lot of long-time locals are sharing the same thoughts,” Martin says.
Despite the big wet proving troublesome for some, Liam Gavin of Gavins Apiaries is comfortable with where their hives are placed, both physically and in their performance. In most of their hives they are building towards a mānuka flowering in November in central Northland. Right now, Gavins Apiaries’ colonies are probably “too strong” Gavin says, with them becoming a hunger risk, especially if the sun doesn’t shine. All up, the wet winter has not been overly burdensome, with hives wintered down healthy and not needing much winter attention, plus hives largely sited where vehicle access has still been possible in August.
“We’ve had a heap of rain, don’t get me wrong, but until now we haven’t had to go into the hives. If you don’t get this weather in winter though, you will get the same thing we have had in many of the last five years of too dry of a summer. If we don’t get a cold wet winter then the plants don’t stop growing and they don’t flower properly. They try to flower in the middle of winter. They do all sorts of silly things. Yes, it’s wet, but it needs to be wet and cold, you just have to work around it,” Gavin says.
In the very far north some mānuka plants are starting to flower already and Tahi beekeeper Lenny Stone, who manages 200 beehives, has his fingers crossed for the sun to breakthrough in the key month of September, so they can try and make up for a dismal honey season just been.
“It looks like it will be an early season. There is flower already and a lot of bud to come. We are on a narrow strip of land up here, but, if we can get some good weather, it could be quite a good season,” Stone says.
South Island Snow
While it might be the big wet in the North, it was the big cold for stretches of August in the South Island high country, following on from an otherwise milder-than-usual winter.
Steve Wootton manages Taylor Pass Honey Company’s thousands of hives across Central Otago, with many destined for cherry pollination in late September.
“The clusters are still tight and winter stores good. They haven’t eaten much to get them moving forward. We are giving a stimulus feed at the moment, but not too much, just enough to try get them going,” Wootton says.
While there were still some hard frosts hitting in late August, Wootton says it is a matter of making the most of about five hours in the middle of the days to get out and check hives. Snow dumps in August are no concern for their operation.
“You just do a bit of shed work and go out in the hours you can. It does not greatly impact on the beehives because, traditionally, it is such a long time before our honey flow down here. Sometimes the colder it stays for longer the better. It is almost welcome in our high-country areas because it means we don’t have to go and strip them as early for varroa. As long as they have the food stores you have no issues,” Wootton says.
Further up the Mainland in Hawarden, North Canterbury, Heathstock Apiaries owner Mark McCusker is another who saw snow settle around their hives in August, but it’s just business as usual and site selection, to allow adequate vehicle access, is crucial.
“August has been cold, but June and July were mild. We didn’t have any significant snow on the hills until the end of July,” McCusker says.
Bee populations are high in their hives, but the queens’ laying is perhaps less than in a ‘normal’ season due to a slow-down in August.
“As soon as they get some stimulation that queen will kick in with some laying. They are opening the season about as good as they can though,” McCusker reports.
Down the road at Springbank Honey in Cust, owner Steve Brown also reports strong hives following their visits, between some big August snow dumps. Because of the later winter, managing hunger in the hives over the next month or two will be crucial.
“The hives look good and they are ahead of normal. It’s like we are in spring, but then we are not. A southerly comes through and they chew through more food and you can’t get out to them for a while,” Brown says.
Beekeepers are largely managing through any weather disruptions early in the season and up in Northland, Gavin encapsulates what is likely to be many beekeeper’s sentiments, coming off the back of a poor honey season.
“A wet winter makes getting out in the hives tough this time of year, but it is a lot better than a wet summer,” he says.