Widespread flooding in Canterbury over the final weekend of May brought instant devastation to many people and businesses, among them beekeepers, with estimates of more than one thousand beehives destroyed and many more damaged. The impact of the floods has been sudden, but it won’t be until spring that many can assess the true toll on their hives.
Beekeepers all over Canterbury weighed up the risk when forecast heavy rain began to fall on May 28. Some elected to move hives to higher ground, while many others opted to keep apiaries in place and hope for the best, either because moving them was impractical or deemed unnecessary.
The result was widespread damage to hives as emergency was declared. Placing a number on the amount of hives damaged or destroyed is impossible, but South Canterbury based supply company New Zealand Beeswax general manager Nick Taylor says they have been in correspondence with about 30 Canterbury beekeepers since the flooding and they estimate between one and two thousand hives to have been destroyed.
“Responses ranged from, ‘nah not a problem’ to ‘I’m in trouble’ and everything in between,” Taylor says.
“It seems to be beekeepers in the high country who were hammered worse. They winter-down on rivers, close to the willows. They didn’t have the time or the place to move their hives and when we initially spoke to them they didn’t even have the ability to check on them because access was limited to many areas.”
Among the worst affected areas was Staveley and Mt Somers, west of Methven, with Mt Somers recording its most ever rainfall for a 48-hour period, 526mm.
Beekeepers in the area are understood to have suffered significant hive losses, among them Greg Barnaby, owner of Coal Creek Honey, who says almost a third of his 350 hives have had water go through them, while his family’s newly built house and base for their business has also been severely damaged.
“All of our supers are kept in 20-foot containers and they are not watertight. They are a bit of a shambles,” Barnaby says, speaking while trying to clean up his beekeeping shed and workshop which also suffered damage.
“Everything in the house is a write-off. Water came 600 millimetres up the walls and everything below that will need to go, carpet, flooring, batts,” he says.
As for the hives, he knows he has lost nearly 100, but how many more of their damaged colonies will survive until spring, Barnaby is uncertain.
“Wet hives are not ideal anytime, but especially not winter.”
He is concerned that water in lower brood-box frames could freeze, given their location at the foot of the Southern Alps, creating a fridge for the remaining bees to live within.
Greatly reduced winter survival is a concern shared by nearby beekeeper Leah Mee, owner of Southern Alps Honey. Mee says they anticipate about one quarter of their approximately 1000 hives have been affected by flood waters.
“Some have got some bees flying in and out, but 50 percent of their bees might be dead. They may make it through. I am not sure,” Mee says.
Silt carried by flood waters has also penetrated many hives in the region, leaving frames unusable and beekeepers the job of removing them and salvaging what they can.
REPRIEVE FOR SOME
For some beekeepers the impact of the floods has been devastating, while many will be glad the rain stopped when it did.
“There are some horror stories and there are some relieved beekeepers thinking it could have been a lot worse,” Taylor says.
With Canterbury beekeepers fond of placing hives nearby to rivers – oftentimes inside stopbanks – for over-wintering and spring build up purposes, there are plenty at flood risk.
In North Canterbury James Malcolm, owner-director of Natural New Zealand Honey, says his entire operation’s almost 5000 honey hives and 2000 nucs were “sitting on a riverbed for winter”.
“So, what do you shift?” he asks.
Malcolm was one of the beekeepers who decided to sit tight and accept the fate of his apiary sites, with the result a loss of 200 nucs and 150 full size hives.
“There wouldn’t have needed to be much more rain for us to have lost a lot more. I reckon 100 millimetres more rain and we would have lost a third of our operation.”
As it is, he expects the cost of the damage to be in the range of $100,000 due to replacement equipment, labour, having to split and weaken other hives, and the loss of over-wintered queens.
RAIN ON THE PLAIN
While those in the high country copped the worst of it, beekeepers lower on the Canterbury plains were far from unscathed.
Midlands Apiaries, perhaps the largest South Island beekeeping operation, suffered “150 dead, 50 of them washed away, another 200 damaged but still alive,” according to operations manager Matt McCully’s best estimates.
“We didn’t have as many hives damaged as what I first thought we would. A lot of sites we went to, where I was expecting damage, were not affected. I was pleasantly surprised,” McCully says.
Third-generation Leeston beekeeper Barry Hantz says he has never seen the Selwyn River as high as it was over the last weekend of May. Hantz Honey moved hives to higher ground, but were still caught out in some areas as it was difficult to predict where rivers would jump their stopbanks. Where they did, hives have often been damaged, but not destroyed.
“It’s not always a raging torrent that will wash the hives away, but it is enough to fill the bottom box half up with water and silt. Nine times out of 10 they are still there though,” Hantz says.
While many insurance policies cover loss or damage to hives through flooding, not all beekeepers impacted are fully insured, especially with hive values having dropped dramatically in recent years. That will mean some are likely to exit the industry, with a rebuild of their business unviable in the current economic climate.
Apiculture is far from the worst hit industry though, with agriculture and horticulture industries particularly badly impacted as flood waters destroyed crops, animals and infrastructure.
Many Canterbury beekeepers are aware of the plight of others and putting their flooding setbacks in perspective, with Barnaby assessing his badly damaged new house in Staveley, plus sheds and business, stoically.
“That’s OK, we know how to fix it because we only just finished building it and moved in six weeks ago,” he says drily.
“We know where to find the tradesmen.”
Nearby, Mee says it will be months before recovery really gets underway in their hives and the true loss counted.
“There is not a lot we can do right now, it is just a matter of wait and see really,” she says.
“The spring will tell us more of a story, I’m sure.”