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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

Dunedin’s Scientific Beekeeper

Last month we met Dunedin beekeeper Otto Hyink and learned of his family’s strong beekeeping connection, his expertise in the use of oxalic acid hive treatments, and learnt about the Otto’s Bees breeding programme. This month, Maggie James continues her profile with a look into how Hyink has built his small beekeeping business around his family and school hours, a niche product he produces for fellow beekeepers and how he stays connected to the scientific community.

“This is one of my favourite photos of our children,” Otto Hyink says. “I display this at beginner courses. It is a great example of how a good stock, gentle, Italian bee can generally be managed by all age groups.”

While Hyink’s father Gerrit has now been a commercial beekeeper In the Bay of Plenty for 40 years following the family's emigration from Holland, for Otto science was the career choice. As an 18-year-old he arrived in Dunedin to study microbiology and in 2004 graduated with a PhD in virology, the study of viruses, from University of Otago. In 2009 Hyink commenced work for over five years at the university with Professor Peter Dearden, Head of Department of Biochemistry.

Prior to the arrival of children, both Otto Hyink and wife Lyn Wise worked for salaries, and it was then the appeal of self-employed beekeeping arose.

“I found that undertaking research work projects didn’t work for us and I was constantly having to negotiate time away, as experiments are not necessarily undertaken ‘nine to five’. The decision was made for Lyn to work full time, and my beekeeping would fit in with school hours. Our thinking was, we didn’t have kids for others to raise them,” Hyink says.

His own apiaries are no more than a 20-minute drive from home, and this helps to ensure that all beekeeping can be undertaken 9.30am to 2pm.

Gradually, hives have been built up as can be afforded and Hyink runs between 100-150 hives focusing on queen rearing. Honey produced is extracted at a local NP1 facility.

Introductory Beekeeper Courses

Hyink has plenty of beekeeping knowledge to share and so each spring the Dunedin Beekeepers Club offers an introductory course for those new to beekeeping. The tutors are Hyink, plus local commercial beekeeper and AP2 Murray Rixon.

“For general, basic introduction my advice is that learning about bees is a handful, and I generally recommend that newcomers use miticide treatment that they know will work well, such as Apivar and Bayvarol. However, it does depend on the individual. Some are fine with organic treatments, particularly those that are scientifically minded and if they have the time to monitor populations,” Hyink says.

Buffer Solution

The scientist-beekeeper also spent two years working with breeding programme Betta Bees, who utilise a lot of instrumental insemination. It’s a process Hyink still supports from afar with his niche market in the production of honey bee buffer agent solution, supplied to a few New Zealand instrumental insemination operators. This solution requires formulation in a laboratory using a sensitive set of scales allowing optimal adjustment of pH solution. Small amounts of nutrients and antibiotics are added.

Dunedin beekeeper Otto Hyink has gone from a career as a virologist to that of self-employed beekeeper, building Otto’s Bees to have between 100 and 150 hives to supply hives and both Italian and Carniolan type queens to fellow beekeepers, while keeping his hand in with the scientific community.

When harvesting semen from drone bees, the few nutrients help keep semen viable, and the antibiotics stop bacteria killing semen, aiding sperm longevity. The solution makes semen runny and can also be used to clean any surfaces that might come into direct contact of collected semen, such as syringes.

Keeping in with the Science Community

With the advent of Varroa destructor and other bee diseases in New Zealand in the 2000s, plus the disappearance of most feral colonies, Kiwi beekeepers were concerned about the potential for loss of genetic diversity in honey bees, and resulting decreased stock viability. Therefore, working for Peter Dearden at University of Otago, to test sex alleles, Hyink called for drone samples from throughout the country. He presented his findings at the 2013 National Beekeepers Association Conference in Ashburton.

“When it comes to honey bee genetics in New Zealand, we found plenty of variety out there and if you are getting poor brood patterns, this is unlikely to be due to a lack of genetic diversity,” he concludes.

As part of another project, for a couple of seasons Hyink trapped pollen samples from 21 sites around Dunedin. The pollen was then subject to DNA sequencing to determine what the bees were foraging on. The concept was that, if there was a new invasive plant species in the area, honey bees may find it. Hyink enjoyed this work, which analysed what the bees were foraging on at different parts of the season.

The university is quick to shoulder tap their former student and employee when they need an experienced, hands-on beekeeper for any such projects, and it’s an arrangement Hyink seems to enjoy.

So, while the business operation may be small in hive numbers at 100-150, Hyink’s contribution to the beekeeping community has been, and will surely continue to be, significant, from research projects, to oxalic acid, queen breeding, mentorship at the club and even the buffer solution in the insemination lab!

To discuss any aspect of this story with Otto Hyink, email otto.hyink@gmail.com


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