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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

Empowering and Bee-Ing Part of a Strong, AFB Free, Dunedin Community


Currently Dunedin is the only New Zealand city with no American foulbrood (AFB) incidents reported in the last six months – a real credit to the whole Dunedin beekeeping community. Maggie James chats with the Dunedin Beekeepers Club president Brian Ellis, and committee member Jane Dawber about how the club is closely connecting with their community and taking advantage of the technical expertise and research projects of nearby institutions.

By Maggie James

For over 40 years the Dunedin Beekeepers Club Inc has been involved in a wide range of activities, enabling their community of beekeepers to be vibrant and informed, plus reaping a bountiful harvest of knowledge from varied industry contacts.

Happy in the hives and in their roles building a successful Dunedin Beekeepers Club are president Brian Ellis and committee member Jane Dawber in the club apiary which provides an ideal base for educating not just members, but the wider community. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery, Arc Photo Ltd.

The club boasts 200 beekeepers on its circulation list, 50 of them very active. A quarterly electronic newsletter is circulated to members, there is a private club Facebook page and a very well set out, easy to use, informative club website.

On top of AFB

This facilitation of information and knowledge transfer is no doubt one of the reasons the city is so well on top of AFB infections, with the AFB Management Agency confirming a clean slate of reported AFB in the last six months from Dunedin city.

“We promote best practise beekeeping, and we do more than just encourage good practises among our members. We provide a service enabling easy access to manufactured proprietary varroa treatments, advising alternating the chemical families,” Ellis says.

“For new beekeepers we recommend the use of proprietary strips. They are easy and safe to use. It’s important to learn about bees and hives, before considering other forms of treatments. The Club uses these strips, but quite a few members feel strongly about organic treatments, especially oxalic acid strips, and will be using these as supplementary or whole treatments.”

Club associate and microbiologist Dr Otto Hyink is very knowledgeable on oxalic acid strips and his advice has been of value to club members.

In The Name of Science

The Club sees themselves as vital in terms of providing a platform for education and involvement with industry research. This is a good fit, given their proximity to a range of educational and research institutes, such as University of Otago in Dunedin.

In 2019-20 Hyink co-ordinated various hives around the city for a University of Otago project titled Bees as Biosecurity Biomonitors: Exotic Plant Detection and Identification.

For a couple of seasons club members were involved in trapping pollen samples from around Dunedin. The pollen was then subject to DNA sequencing to determine what the bees were foraging on. Urban hives were suggested, because of the variety of pollen sources worked, making the Dunedin club a valuable supporter of the research. The concept was that if there was a new invasive plant species in the area, honey bees may find it.

The project concluded that pollen collected by Apis mellifera can identify invasive plant species.

There has also been assistance given to research centred further afield.

“Twice last season Victoria University, Wellington, entomologist Phil Lester visited our club. We contacted Phil to take part in a varroa study after he put out the call asking for hives having varroa problems and were weak. He wanted to gather bees and mites and monitor the diseases on both,” Dawber says.

The Dunedin Beekeepers Club observation hive made by club member Hector Wong and used for public displays and educational purposes. Photo: Brian Ellis

This research found that the most common virus in bees was the deformed wing virus (the DWV-A strain) and that most bees in hives will have low levels of many other viruses including black queen cell and sacbrood viruses. The analysis of varroa mites also found high levels of the DWV-A virus. The genetic work suggested there has been just one introduction of varroa mites into New Zealand.

A Club in the Heart of the Community

The Club apiary at Belleknowes is situated at the Southern Youth Development Trust (SYD). There are two ¾ depth hives with double brood boxes, and currently several nucs made from these hives, plus a bench hive. SYD is an agency working with young people disengaged with education or community and works with them to help realise their potential, plus achieve a stronger community.

“Two or three times a year we provide sessions for SYD students who gear up in bee suits, then look through hives with us. Students relish dressing up in the suits, and some just prefer enjoying racing around as ‘spacemen’!” Ellis says.

Conveniently, the SYD facility also includes an NP1 registered kitchen which allows for club hive honey extraction, where members get to assist and taste their product. To help give a commercial perspective of machinery involved, some of the club crop is also extracted by members with Murray Rixon, Taeiri Plains, at his NP1 registered plant.

Club facilities also include a seminar room, but sometimes the real life experiences out the window can be more captivating Dawber laughs.

“Last spring during a club meeting talking about swarm prevention, we looked out the window to see one of the hives swarming, but before it settled the colony returned to its hive!”

The club also gives demonstrations at local schools to nine and 10 year-old students using a series of display stations in the school playground about bees, bee suits, hive tools, info on honey extraction, plus a demo hive made by club member Hector Wong. A suited display mannequin is often borrowed from Brian and Adrienne Pilley, local beekeeping suppliers.

Bylaw Win

Like many areas of the country, Dunedin has recently seen a review of its bylaws regarding animals on urban properties. The Beekeepers Club have been able to help secure a win there.

“Last year the Club were active in supporting the retention of apiaries in the urban environment and a favourable result was secured. Consequently, in the Dunedin City Council area there is no restriction of hives and apiaries in the urban environment, unless the issue is in regard to when it might be a nuisance to a neighbour,” Ellis says.

Club Philosophy

While working in partnership with the wider community is obviously fundamental to the operations of the club, so too is working in partnership with all aspects of the apiculture industry. Since 2021 they have held membership to Apiculture New Zealand and both Ellis and Dawber attended the most recent national conference, in Christchurch, which they say was a very positive experience which they recommend to all beekeepers.

“Our club outlook is now based on some of the comments made by Alex Turnbull, Chief Executive Officer for Manuka Health. ‘All beekeepers whether they have one or 50,000 hives have a responsibility to the industry. One beekeeper can ruin it for all.’ Our club has made the commitment to echo this philosophy,” Dawber says.

On that note, Ellis, the president, explains that, because they take beekeeping seriously, they dislike the term ‘hobbyist’ and prefer to use the term ‘non-commercial’ to describe beekeepers with smaller hive holdings.

“As a club we like to see ourselves bridging the gap between commercial and non-commercial operators who often have just one hive in the garden,” Dawber explains.

Generally, in early spring the club holds beginner beekeeping courses, usually over two weekends consisting of theory and hands on beekeeping. They are fortunate to enlist the services of commercial beekeeper and AP2 Murray Rixon, plus Hyink, who is a self-employed beekeeper alongside his microbiology work.

After course completion, attendees are given the opportunity of being set up with mentors. Some pursue continuing education through various Level Three and Four tertiary training providers.

A recent field day saw some more commercial beekeeper involvement with Sharleen Coker from Cromwell, and Blair Dale from Middlemarch, whom each spoke about their operations and business, challenges they face, honey production and extraction, plus pollination services.

It’s a club that connects with beekeepers across the industry and members of their community through a range of initiatives. Being that lately the Government – along with the director of the Reserve Bank – have been indicating that we are in for tough times and Kiwis may need to look to their communities more and support each other, the Dunedin Beekeepers Club appear to be up with the times and well ahead in this race.



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