• Patrick Dawkins

Conference Takeaways

With an impressive venue playing host, a smaller cluster of beekeepers and a day shorter duration than recent events, the Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) conference was recently back in the South Island for the first time since 2018.

Chief executive Karin Kos says feedback at the June 30-July 1 conference was very positive, while announcing a registration total of just over 750 people. That number is down considerably on recent events in Rotorua that saw more than 1200 gather. While many beekeepers feel the pinch of depressed honey prices, the South Island’s lower count of beekeepers is likely to be the main contributing factor to the reduced turnout.

Dr Samuel Ramsey of the Ramsey Research Foundation was again a lively and entertaining speaker on his second trip to an ApiNZ conference, providing an update on his research into parasitic mites of honey bees. Photo: ApiNZ

A bevy of expert speakers and industry personal addressed those gathered at the state-of-the-art Te Pae Convention Centre, while the usual wide range of exhibitors in the trade hall provided a regular gathering point.

Manuka Health chief executive Alex Turnbull.

Here’s our takeaways from the two-day event…

· Shots fired: Conference premium sponsor Manuka Health chief executive Alex Turnbull, who has been in that role since September last year, had some choice words in his opening address for those who “actively oppose” industry collaboration, saying “we need to unify and Apiculture New Zealand plays a big part in this”.

· Easy solve: Keynote speaker Dr Jamie Ellis of the University of Florida dispelled some of the myths around “colony collapse disorder” in America, pointing out they have more hives now than at any time in the last 30 years. He addressed major causes of hive losses in both the USA and New Zealand – varroa, queen issues and starvation. One of those is much more manageable than the others though … “The fact that our bees die of starvation annoys the willies out of me. It is so manageable. Easily addressable”.

· Under doh’sed: Pike Stahlmann-Brown of Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research presented results from the latest Colony Loss Survey, including highlighting the finding that 40% of beekeepers using Bayvarol to treat varroa underdosed.

· Following on that topic…: Phil Lester of Victoria University presented a study recently completed on the university’s hives that showed “good evidence there is some mite resistance to flumethrin” (the active ingredient in Bayvarol). However, he advised “it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it” with Stahlmann-Brown pointing out that 85% of respondents to Col Loss were “satisfied” with Bayvarol.

· Before we leave it…: Ellis was keen to impress the message “there is no registered varroa treatments that you can put in your hive that is as bad for it as varroa”. Despite research and discussion around various methods for managing varroa, he believed, for at least the next 10 years, chemical treatments will continue to be the primary answer to varroa.

· Double the OA: An interesting insight when panel discussion on bee health turned to oxalic acid – Dr Ellis recommended using 4g of acid per hive when vaporising, twice the usual approved rate in the USA. Also saying “oxalic acid has promise, but is very sensitive. The amount you use and the amount of brood present is critical,” in reference to vapour treatments.

· Copy cats: Dr Sammy Ramsey’s presentations – as with his appearance at the 2019 conference – were lively, entertaining and deeply fascinating as to the habits of varroa and tropilaelaps mites. His use of electron microscope photographs gives new understanding of the mites. He explained how varroa go to great lengths to mimic honey bees and avoid detection, from copying the bees’ smell to the type of hairs that both display.

· “Not your best and brightest”: Ramsey warned beekeepers not to get overly encourage by high natural mite drop on sticky boards beneath hives, pointing out they were likely the “old, diseased and infirmed” mites of the population which would soon die anyway.

· Not looking good Oz: Calling on the example of Réunion Island, where varroa mites spread across the previously varroa-free Indian Ocean island rapidly, Ramsey said he was not optimistic at Australia’s chances of eradicating the recently arrived parasite. With a single mite capable of founding an entire population, preventing spread is near impossible the American entomologist believes.

· “It’s all about timing”: Varroa scientist Michelle Taylor of Plant and Food Research made an excellent presentation on management considerations for the control of varroa. Her line graph detailing an example growth/decline of the honey bee colony, overlapped with mite populations and alongside critical honey flows, provided a great illustration of the need for correct timing of treatments. With talk of varroa damage of colonies prevalent in beekeeping circles, Taylor’s graph highlighted the impact of a declining honey bee population (such as in autumn) against any sort of varroa population, but particularly high mite loadings.

· Show of strength: Those groups tasked with trying to protect the term “Manuka Honey” are displaying confidence, despite setbacks in the UK Courts. “We have a stable infrastructure and funding to continue going forward. We’ve got this covered,” claimed Te Pitau director Tony Wright, while detailing their primary funding sources – the UMF Honey Association, along with a $2million government loan and $700K from major manuka honey exporters.

Te Pitau’s Kristen Kohere-Soutar, at the lectern, and Tony Wright, far right, updated the conference on their work to protect the term “Mānuka Honey”. Photo: Laura Dawkins.

· Bloody battle: Asked what the failings of their current strategy in the UK courts might be, Wright was not willing to give any details, just saying, “we may lose the odd skirmish on the way to winning the war”. Seems so.

· Sustainable first steps: Comvita sustainability program lead Erin Swanson addressed the main auditorium saying “the sustainability journey is an opportunity for our industry”. She detailed how their company has begun addressing key issues as they target becoming carbon neutral by 2025 while imploring beekeepers to take the first step in their operations. She pointed out Comvita are seeking greater sustainability in the businesses of their suppliers, including honey producers. “Measure emissions, identify hot spots within your business and set targets to reduce them”, she encouraged, pointing beekeepers towards the Sustainable Business Network website for tools to help with the first steps.

· Might Monitor?: A running theme when the talk turned to varroa was Ashburton queen breeder Rae Butler’s desire to establish a more comprehensive mite monitoring programme and ideally a mobile app. Her passion for the idea is certainly being noticed, but will it be acted upon?

· ApiNZ AGM: The good news of soon-to-be free trade to the EU greeted the industry on day two of the conference, which began with the industry body’s AGM. These days the annual meeting is a rather rushed affair, seemingly angled toward back slapping more so than any critical analysis of the industry body’s operations. There was time for three Life Memberships to be awarded, the first since ApiNZ was formed in 2016. Barry Foster, John Hartnell and Ricki Leahy the worthy recipients.

· In the waka without a paddle: There was time enough for a few questions from the floor during general business at the AGM, with Mid Canterbury beekeeper Roger Bray questioning the relevance of ApiNZ’s involvement in the He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) emission reduction discussions. ApiNZ Chair Bruce Wills responded by saying “it doesn’t really affect us” and “we were largely an observer” but that “it is much better to be involved in all aspects. We support our primary sector partners”.

· Levy update: When questioned on the progress of an industry levy proposal, Wills called it “a work in progress” and to expect an update in the next six months.

· Tropi mite: With the news that varroa has arrived in Australia, biosecurity was not far from conference attendee’s minds and day two saw Ramsey take to the stage with some warnings about tropilaelaps mites, currently confined largely to Asia but making a similar progression across the globe as that of varroa. He pointed out that there is not a single registered treatment against “tropi” mite (although his trials with formic acid are showing some potential) … “We really need to wake up and study this parasite before it becomes the next pollinator pandemic.”

· Go fund me: Ramsey is to be admired for his approach to research. The American scientist has relocated to Thailand to study Tropi mites, established the non-profit Ramsey Research Foundation, yet did not bring up that all important issue of funding until prompted by an encouraged audience member https://www.ramseyresearchfoundation.org/.

· Time to re-queen?: Ellis dialled in from Florida again on day two of the conference and shared some knowledge on requeening, saying we have an “ethical responsibility” to ensure our colonies do not have a poor quality queen which leads to reduced welfare of the colony. “We need to stop letting inferior queens remain in the colony, we do more harm than good if we do so.”

University of Florida’s Dr Jamie Ellis was able to both present, then and field and answer questions, via a video link displayed on Te Pae Convention Centre’s sizable projector screen.

· Mike’s Message: Discussions on mental illness are not your usual setting for rapturous laughter, but former stand-up comedian Mike King seemingly took the ‘former’ out of that title with his thoroughly entertaining 45 minutes spent addressing the main auditorium. While his work with charity I Am Hope often presents to children directly, his conference audience was largely parents, who he left with some great advice around improving the mental wellbeing of both themselves and the next generation. “The key to good mental health is looking outwards, asking, ‘how can I help?’. Lift others up,” King said, among many other hard-hitting messages.

· Bureaucratic bungling: King, after years of dealing with the health system’s inadequate mental health support, does not sugar coat his thoughts on our failing bureaucracies, much to the audience’s delight. “They build something which doesn’t work, then – instead of admitting their failure – they keep bolting other pieces on to it to try and justify the broken model, until ultimately it sinks.” I wonder if MPI’s reps at the conference heard that one…

· Good sport: Bruce Wills, sitting front row, provided King with a subject for some good ol’ fashioned comedic roasting, the outgoing ApiNZ chair taking it all in good humour and helping King provide a lighter side to his serious subject.

· Deer Levy: Rhys Griffiths of Deer Industry NZ got an invite to speak at the event and, following in the footsteps of Jen Schuler of the avocado industry at last year’s conference, he was singing the praises of a levy in advancing a successful industry. It wasn’t an easy road though Griffiths said, “initially it was highly fragmented. We pulled all the deer velvet exporters together in a room and I thought there was going to be a punch up.” At least apiculture has avoided that so far too!

· Genetic solutions: A more informal discussion on day two between the two keynote speakers, Ramsey on stage and Ellis dialling in through the huge projector screen from late at night in Florida, saw talk turn to genetic improvement. “I believe with my heart that most of the solutions we need to honey bee health problems are there in their gene pool,” Ellis said, with Ramsey agreeing. Unlocking those genetic improvements through editing and modification is a touchy subject though, but one “we need to get comfortable with and make happen,” Ellis said.

· Manuka Collective collecting awards: The Manuka Collective (formerly 100% Pure NZ Honey) once again scooped a haul of golds at the national honey awards, with Jarved Allan backing up his supreme award win from 2021 by once again claiming the top gong at the gala dinner on the final night.

$: From research funding, to improved biosecurity, or a more unified marketing approach, the lack of funding within the apiculture industry was a consistent message across the science symposium and then two days of national conference. Unfortunately, so too were the financial struggles of large parts of the industry. A chicken and egg situation of sorts … and we don’t have the funds to research which one came first.


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