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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Filling the Orchards

Kiwifruit orchards are on the increase while beehive totals are on a steep decline, and with the former relying heavily on the latter to produce a crop, Bay of Plenty orchardists are having to go further and further afield to find hives. There’s concern the quality of the beehives placed is not what it should be, and that more orchards run the risk of missing out on their most important pollinators altogether this spring.

Beehives usually get placed in flowering kiwifruit orchards at 10-12 hives per hectare, but at that rate they need to hold strong and healthy colonies to optimise pollination.

Hive shortages, weak or even dead hives placed in orchards, and severely reduced crops, the disparity between growth and recession in kiwifruit and beekeeping industries respectively is putting growers at risk, those in both industries say.

“You wouldn’t believe what I saw,” says Neale Cameron a former beekeeper who makes the effort to audit the beehives placed in orchards of the three Bay of Plenty kiwifruit entities he is general manager of.

“You couldn’t get any worse. There were hives which I opened up which didn’t look like they had been opened for a year. Nothing in it and they were charging $200-odd. Some beekeepers didn’t even show up with hives. They just said, ‘oh well I haven’t got them’. It was really bad.”

New Zealand Beekeeping Inc president Jane Lorimer, who owns and manages Waikato business Hillcrest Apiaries, says she is fairly certain there were shortages in the Gold variety of kiwifruit orchards at pollination time last spring.

“I was rung by a beekeeper being asked to ‘please supply some hives’, so I think there was some orchardists who missed out because they had left it to the nth hour to organise a beekeeper,” Lorimer says.

Looking to the coming spring, the same problems may manifest she worries, despite beekeepers being keen for the work for their hives.

“There will definitely be growers scrambling for hives. Ourselves, we are going to have a lot more hives going into Waikato orchards because they have increased their Gold variety. I can see there will be a point, if communication isn’t improved, that there will be shortages. The beekeepers who are wanting to do it, may not even get to the guys who want hives,” Lorimer says.

The figures bear that out too, with registered hive numbers in New Zealand having fallen from a high of 918,000 in 2019 to 601,000 at last report. The North Island numbers have gone from 694,000 to 418,000 in that time. Compare that to the growth of kiwifruit plantations, up 12.5% from 12,905 producing hectares in 2019/20 to 14,512ha in 2022/23. That’s 1607ha of new orchards that require beehives, at an average of 10-12 hives per ha. Bay of Plenty is home to by far the largest area of kiwifruit orchards, with 11,429ha


New Zealand has seen an increase of 1607ha of licenced kiwifruit orchard area since 2019, all the while beehive numbers have fallen.

A Desirable Undertaking

Kiwifruit pollination contracts have become more appealing to beekeepers in recent seasons as they grapple to keep their businesses afloat as honey prices reduce. That’s in stark contrast to the mānuka boom years of the 2010s Lorimer says.

“Most Bay of Plenty beekeepers got their businesses going by pollinating a whole lot of kiwifruit, then mānuka came along and they realised they could make more money there so they chased it. Doing one pollination job, at most, then heading off down the line.”

Now pollination contracts are sought-after again and some hives are even destined for two or three different stints in orchards each spring. Those multi-placements are getting more and more difficult due to the prevalence of the Gold variety Cameron explains.

“We used to get two or three pollinations a season out of a hive. The Gold early then the Haywood (Green) after. Some people would even try to get three pollinations out of a hive. Now because of the variety we have it is not that early, it is pretty difficult to get two placements. You can get one, but that doesn’t cover a huge amount of costs. It is not the earner it used to be. A beekeeper’s costs for the year used to be covered by pollination work. So, when they headed out of the orchards, anything else was cream. Now, it is not working out that way with only getting one pollination placement out of a hive,” Cameron says.

Typical per-hive payments pay between $200 and $300 Cameron says.

Katikati beekeeper Mark Silson, owner of KiwiCoast Apiaries, undertakes kiwifruit pollination, but is amazed when he sees hives being trucked in from far-away areas, such as Northland, and wonders if they will be back the following season when the owners crunch the numbers.

“There is a cash flow, but there are significant costs associated with keeping and maintaining beehives to ensure they are at a good pollination standard. With the Gold crop now, these have to be ready earlier. Diesel, RUCs, wages and sugar syrup are all substantial costs and they don’t go down,” Silson says.

Delivering the Goods

As Cameron reports, some beekeepers appear happy to cash in on hive placements while not ensuring the suitability of those hives. Having worked as a beekeeper, then for Zespri educating growers and beekeepers on the importance of pollination, and now as GM of kiwifruit businesses which rely on the bees doing their thing every spring, he well knows the industry standard for hive strength.



“Twelve full depth frames of bees when viewed from the top, covering top to bottom of frame. Seven frames of 60% brood on both sides, and that is brood of all stages of development, eggs, larvae, pupae. It needs a laying queen, some food supply and to be free of disease,” Cameron lists.

As it stands there is very little auditing of hives in orchards which takes place though Cameron believes, with his inspections the exception to the norm. As far as he knows, there is very sporadic checks organised by individual orchardists, and AsureQuality offering a service through just one inspector for the whole Bay of Plenty.

“Growers are incredibly trusting and if they have a long-term relationship with a beekeeper they may never look at the hives. The auditing is just not enough,” Cameron says.

“The cost of not getting quality of hives right is huge. By getting pollination wrong, the impact to kiwifruit is absolutely ginormous.”

For this reason there has been legal action taken against beekeepers who failed to supply the goods in the past. One of the driving factors behind the Kiwifruit Pollination Association, which operated through the 1990s and early 2000s and routinely audited beekeeping member’s hives, was to assure quality and provide a paper trail proving as much.

Success! But will there be enough quality beehives to ensure kiwifruit growers can set a heavy crop in the coming years?

Ensuring hive strength is getting harder Lorimer believes.

“The hive strengths in the last couple of years have been variable, more variable than in the past. It stems from having high hive losses in the area and beekeepers struggling to get hives up to strength.

“At times you think you have hives ready to go for kiwifruit and then you go to check them before putting them in and you go ‘argh they haven’t come up to strength’. What are you going to do?” Lorimer says.

It seems some beekeepers are placing them in orchards anyway, a suspicion which Lorimer holds as she has witnessed neighbouring orchard’s hives with little bee activity as she does her rounds.

Getting on the Same Page

For those doing it right though, kiwifruit pollination is once again proving the foundation of beekeeping businesses. New Zealand Beeswax general manager Nick Taylor is seeing the results of that.

“The green shoots that are out there are very modest and almost exclusively pollination focused,” he says, also pointing out that is not limited to kiwifruit.

“It’s where beekeepers can get short travel distances, multi-cropping arrangements, where honey becomes almost a by-product and bonus at the end of the season, not the money driver. That gives business models that can just tick along and we are seeing modest growth from some small operators.”

While that may be the case, it’s a buck to the overall trend and so Lorimer believes, with the Kiwifruit Pollination Association and the link it offered between growers and beekeepers now well in the past, its high time that the two groups improved communications.

“We want to get kiwifruit growers on side with us so we can talk about their hive needs, as well as some issues around hive losses, to determine whether we are going to be able to meet this coming season’s requirements. There hasn’t been much information sharing and so we are trying to establish regular communications,” the NZBI president says.

Silson is another person who sits on both sides of the fence, owning not only his KiwiCoast Apiaries hives but also a kiwifruit orchard. He believes both parties need to start thinking about the looming spring season now, but he fears many may not be.

“Orchardists will be busy thinking about their crop and harvest and possibly not thinking about bees yet,” Silson says, adding that the proactive beekeepers will be setting their hives up for spring now.

“Everything starts from now, getting them going into winter well, over-wintering well and coming out strong. We are getting varroa reinvasion now, in autumn, so it is not only a challenge, but a huge cost.”

A huge cost for beekeepers perhaps, but still not as high of a cost as which growers are at risk of copping should they not find beehives and beekeepers who are up to the job.


 

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