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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Fire, Fury and a Whole Lot of Hot Air

It’s a New Zealand beekeeper’s worst nightmare – burning diseased hives or beekeeping equipment on a large scale. On May 14 Springbank Honey owner Steven Brown went public with emotional pleas on social media for help in fighting what he deemed an unlawful order to destroy “10,000 boxes” of beekeeping equipment which burned behind him. Now he is threatening legal action and vowing to continue his fight for compensation, while the Agency who ordered the destruction say compliant beekeepers have nothing to fear, and destruction of equipment on such a scale is lawful and only a last resort in their ongoing effort to help beekeepers eliminate the disease. Apiarist’s Advocate editor Patrick Dawkins speaks with both Brown and the Agency he opposes in an attempt to push through the hot air and best discern the facts of the sorry tale.

Few things can gain a headline like a big fire and Springbank Honey in North Canterbury, in their desire for public support, have well harnessed theirs. The conflagration, which was the outcome of an order from the Management Agency National American Foulbrood Pest Management Plan (aka ‘the Agency’) to destroy, under the Biosecurity Act 1993, served as a sorry but spectacular backdrop to a series of photos and videos posted and boosted via payment to Facebook, Instagram and YouTube over several days from May 13. An ashen face Brown made pleas to the public for support and took viewers inside his shed in an attempt to explain why he believed the order to destroy was unjustified.

Springbank Honey owner Steve Brown destroys hiveware from his North Canterbury business after being ordered to do so by the AFB Pest Management Plan Agency in the name of eliminating the disease from New Zealand. It’s an order he disagrees with and says he will fight through the courts and social media.

Mainstream media were quick to pounce and the story was covered by TVNZ, Newshub and Radio New Zealand, among others.

“Nearly one in two people in New Zealand have seen this,” Brown says of their coordinated publicity campaign across social media, speaking from his home in Lees Valley, North Canterbury on May 26.

“And we are continuing to push it into the political sphere and really get it out on social media. And now we're pushing it throughout the world. So, it will continue getting publicity throughout the United States and Europe.”



However, the story and picture of New Zealand beekeeping practices which Brown and Springbank Honey are telling the world are littered with contradictions, inaccuracies and allegations which Brown has, thus far, been unable to provide evidence of. The highly inflammatory postings – literally and figurately – variously claim “all” Springbank Honey’s boxes were condemned, while at other points Brown says it’s “all these hives” in the firing line. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that Newshub Live at 6pm television broadcast perpetuated the inaccuracies when they led their bulletin on May 15 claiming “nearly two million dollars’ worth of honey” had been destroyed, a story which remains online, among others with similar falsities.

Clarification of the facts remain difficult, with the Agency constrained under privacy rules to speak to specifics of a beekeeper’s situation, and Springbank Honey as yet unwilling to provide the Order of Destruction they received, any AFB spore test results on their equipment, or a waiver to have their AFB history released.

Springbank Honey’s Claims

Brown has since clarified that his claim is that 10,000 boxes, each holding 10 frames, were ordered to be destroyed. His grievance is that the Agency overreached when they went into his shed where that hiveware was stored and tested the equipment for spores of AFB. Following positive test results from some of the swabs taken, the destruction order was made by the Agency. The Springbank Honey owner is not disputing that spores were identified in his equipment, saying the counts were 2000 and 31,000 spores and that at the levels detected were not a risk to further contamination, and destruction was not required.

A coordinated social media campaign from Springbank Honey – which has included several pleas from owner Steve Brown for help, but also a series of contradictions – has gone viral, with the beekeeper saying it “reached” over 2million people in New Zealand alone in May.

The Agency has recently began using the Foster Method for spore testing of beekeeping equipment not in use on hives, saying without brood present it is difficult to diagnose clinical AFB.

Brown has also variously made claims that some of his personal details were released online, although could not provide specifics, and that an AP2 “spat in his face”. The later appears to be an exaggeration of an earlier claim, made both in his online postings and to the Agency directly, of a person “blowing raspberries” in his face. The Agency investigated the April 2024 visit in question, and found the claims to be unsubstantiated and supposed video evidence, which Brown said he possessed, was never presented.

Legal action will follow Springbank Honey’s publicity campaign the owner says, as they seek compensation for loss and an apology from the Minister for Biosecurity.

The Agency’s Position

While Brown’s emotive attempts at garnering publicity for Springbank Honey’s cause have been ‘fiery’, the Agency tasked with supporting beekeepers in eliminating AFB from managed beehives has sought to fight it with a cooler approach. Since Springbank Honey went public in mid-May the Agency has fronted gatherings of beekeepers in Otago, Southland, Christchurch and Tasman, as well as addressed various forms of media, including this publication, and further clarified their communications on social media and via direct emails to beekeepers.

“There are a number of other beekeepers who encounter AFB and manage it appropriately,” AFB PMP board Chair Mark Dingle says.


“The Pest Management Plan relies on individual beekeepers to check their hives, identify AFB, report it to the Management Agency and destroy those hives within seven days. So long as they do that, we don’t have an issue. The notice to destroy is a last step in a lengthy process. We will issue a notice to destroy because all the things leading up to that point have not been complied with.”

Mainstream media, including TVNZ reporter Thomas Mead, were quick to pick up on Springbank Honey’s story of hiveware destruction and visit their premises, as seen here. Unfortunately, false reports of “honey” and “hives” being destroyed were broadcast and remain online.

AFB was first detected in New Zealand in 1877 and by the 1890s it was having a large, negative, impact on honey crops. Since the 1950s beehives have been burned in New Zealand in order to control spread and eliminate the disease. AFB kills honey bee brood (unhatched bees) and is spore based. It can be clinically diagnosed in living hives, which typically relies on sight and smell assessment of the brood.

The Agency acts under industry body Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ) which is named as the management agency responsible for implementing the Biosecurity (National American Foulbrood Pest Management Plan) Order 1998. In essence The Plan is supported by beekeepers by way of an annual levy for the primary objective of reducing AFB reported incidence by an average of 5% each year, towards the end goal of eradicating the disease from managed honey bee colonies.

An email to all registered beekeepers in New Zealand on May 28 clarified many aspects of the Agency’s response to Springbank Honey, including the use of spore testing.

‘According to Clause 35 (2) of the AFB NPMP the methods approved for use by the Management Agency are required to be “methods generally recognised by the scientific community as effective in the detection of American Foulbrood”. While spore PCR tests is currently not mentioned within the current AFB NPMP, The Management Agency uses this new technology as an alternative tool where the AFB status of a hive or equipment is uncertain. It is 100% reliable and is already used to support our decision to destroy under Clause 25 of the AFB NPMP (‘Destruction of beehives posing risk’) when encountering dead out hives or abandoned hives. Spore tests are also used to verify the suspicion that a systematic failure of AFB management exists in a beekeeping operation and that AFB-contaminated equipment has been created over time within the beekeeping operation,’ the email stated.

“The vast majority of the 8800 beekeepers out there know what their responsibilities are, and follow through and do what is required of them. There is a small pocket who, for whatever reason, think that the rules don’t apply to them,” Dingle says.

AFB PMP national compliance manager Niha Long says they must respect the Privacy Act and thus cannot discuss specifics of Springbank Honey’s hive locations and history in managing AFB without a waiver to do so from the business, which owner Steve Brown says will not be forthcoming.

Where the Spark Emerged

While Springbank Honey has complied with the order to destroy their equipment, Brown is of that group of beekeepers who believe the Agency’s interpretation of the laws are wrong.

“The AP2 and the Agency doesn't know anything, and that's the problem,” Brown says.

“I've worked beehives for 35 years. I started as a kid. I did queen raising for years. I've lived, breathed, slept beekeeping. I've worked in places where they did have AFB problems and helped solve AFB problems. These people don't know what they're doing,” Brown says.

He disagreed with an Authorised Person Level 2 (AP2) inspector’s diagnoses of clinical AFB in Springbank Honey hives, saying he believed the majority of the cases to be sacbrood, which is not infrequent in their organic hives.

“I have no issue with them checking my hives. I have an issue with the level of care they took on my hives and I have an issue that they didn’t actually know what they were doing,” Brown says.

“I don't trust the way that they test the hives in the field. And I don't trust the way that they're using the testing to make a decision and I don't believe that decision is correct.”

Springbank Honey’s history of compliance or non-compliance with AFB management and the Agency is publicly unknown.

“The Privacy Act prevents us from releasing or publicly discussing beekeeper’s hives and AFB incidence,” Agency national compliance manager Niha Long says.

“Regardless of whether a beekeeper is compliant or not, we must respect their privacy.”

Brown would need to provide written consent for the Agency to release Springbank Honey’s data. While that would undoubtably help educate both the beekeeping industry and general public to the issue at hand, Brown says he won’t be providing that waiver.

Fanning the Flames

So, while Springbank Honey’s history with AFB is unclear to the general public, the Agency has been clear about the sort of behaviour from beekeepers which leads them to spore test equipment which is not on hives, and the reasons for their actions.

“Having AFB in your operation is never the problem,” Long says.

AFB PMP board Chair, Mark Dingle says the “vast majority” of beekeepers in New Zealand comply with the Pest Management Plan, but there is “a small pocket who, for whatever reason, think that the rules don’t apply to them”.

“What you do, or don’t do, after that is what catches our attention. By in large, we allow beekeepers to self-manage, report it and destroy within seven days. In those cases, there is no need to intervene, but where we have got strong evidence to suggest that is not happening, and where we have reached out proactively and asked about the issue they are dealing with and whether they need help, but got blanket denial and pushback, we get more interested. And we have to get more interested, for the protection of other beekeepers.

“90% of inspections we do, beekeepers welcome. We notify beekeepers that we are coming along, they might grumble a little bit, but there is no evidence of manipulation or hiding things. What is there to hide? We are there to take an accurate snapshot of the health of your hives. Where there is evidence they have been manipulated or moved and we have found AFB in significant, high levels, which have not been reported, then we must look closer. Then that rings alarm bells for us.”

Spreading it Around

So, what would have happened to the “10,000 boxes” and associated frames had the Agency not intervened by spore testing and ordering destruction? “They would go on to beehives,” Brown says, clear in his plan.

Springbank Honey owner Steve Brown believes the Agency responsible for helping beekeepers eliminate AFB from their beehives and ultimately New Zealand are going about it the wrong way, acting outside their powers, and his management approach would be more appropriate, saying “There’s very few beekeepers like me … I’m the best at what I do”.

“You put the boxes on to hives, you then check the hives for clinical disease, the bees put honey in them and, if you find clinical disease, you then burn the hive. We have followed that plan. So yes, those boxes would have gone on to living hives. Those hives, there is no spread. The only way they can spread AFB is if the hive dies with AFB. The boxes are not spreading it.”

When asked to clarify if taking a super from one hive with AFB and putting it on another and thus creating two hives with AFB was seen by him as spreading the disease, Brown admitted that is “correct”, but he has confidence his beekeeping team can then halt the spread in the field.

“Even if 50% of those hives or boxes were diseased, you would still not burn the boxes … You take the gear, your keep the gear, you isolate the apiary, you check readily and burn the hives that come down with it. That’s how you deal with AFB.”

And that’s again where Springbank Honey and the Agency disagree, with Long saying the risk of that approach is too high.

“If you are finding spores in your gear it is because it has been associated with a clinically infected hive. So, you obviously haven’t caught on to it at the right time, or you have identified it and said ‘I can live with it’. Unfortunately, a minority choose to try to live with it and do not separate or quarantine the gear and the biosecurity risk is too high.”

Brown says they have traceback systems that mean they can track which honey supers (boxes) came from which apiaries and thus limit spread. Long says, if Springbank Honey have such systems, they were not communicated to the Agency.

Roping out of AFB infected brood, a clear sign of a clinical infection in a beehive which should be destroyed in New Zealand.

Anyone there?

And communication, or lack thereof an effective form of it, has clearly led the two parties down this path of destruction.

“We have asked Steve and his employees to accompany us [during inspections] and that has not been happening. Most of the time we have had issues with lack of communication. We have made efforts to communicate with this beekeeper, but sadly it has not been reciprocated,” Long says.

Brown says he has spoken to Long and his local Authorised Person Level 1, Marco Gonzalez, on various matters though. However, he says he is “too busy” to accompany Agency inspectors on hive visits.

“I'm happy to talk to someone who is at my level. But I'm not here to talk to juniors sorry, I'm not,” he says.

“There’s very few beekeepers like me. I sell nearly 10 percent of New Zealand’s honey. There are plenty of experienced beekeepers in New Zealand, but not on my level … I’m the best at what I do.”

Even once an order to destroy equipment was made, there was a breakdown in understanding of the exact requirements and Springbank Honey appears to have undertaken unnecessary measures in destroying equipment which had not been on beehives.

The AFB PMP Agency acted under the Biosecurity Act 1993 when they ordered Springbank Honey to destroy what they deemed was beekeeping equipment posing a risk to their own and other beekeepers’ hives, but Springbank Honey owner Steve Brown says the equipment did not pose a risk and wants compensation and an apology from the Minister for Biosecurity.

“The notice of direction was very clear and we would not issue a notice of direction to destroy new gear, because new gear has not seen bees, at all. There is no scientific rational to issue a notice to destroy something that has never seen bees. The notice is very clear on used equipment and tells you where it is located,” Long says.

Brown decried the need to burn such equipment in one of the videos filmed between receiving the order to destroy and the destruction taking place. Asked why, in the seven days he was allowed, he didn’t seek to clarify if this was a requirement of the order, he says he did try to phone the Agency but got no answer. Why didn’t he push harder to communicate his concerns?

“I had no intention of dealing with crooks,” Brown admits.

So, the unused boxes and frames went up in flames.

“If a beekeeper had, at any time, confusion or is unclear about the notice, then we always tell them to please contact us to get clarification before you action it, because we would rather have a chat about it,” Long says.

Damage Done

So, new equipment or used, highly infectious or nay, the destruction is complete. And now, Brown wants compensation for his losses, saying 10,000 boxes, each with 10 organic wax frames, were on the Springbank Honey books for $200 each, a total value of $2million.

It’s a value which is nearly double what full replacement cost appears to be though, let alone what used items would sit on a balance sheet at. Major South Island hiveware supplier NZ Beeswax list large orders of assembled, dipped and painted, full-depth boxes ready to go into the field at just $32 each. Frames embedded with organic wax are priced at $7.75 each, meaning a new box holding 10 frames would only reach a total value of $109.50, making the Springbank Honey owner’s claims appear fanciful.

Section 122 of the Biosecurity Acy 1993 which the AFB management says gives them power to order destruction of material which ‘there are reasonable grounds to believe harbours a pest or unwanted organism’, such as AFB spores.

However inflated the values may seem, the Agency says it ultimately doesn’t matter because there is no avenue to claim compensation under the current laws.

“The Biosecurity Act gives effect to the PMP and, unlike some other PMPs, the AFB PMP specifically states there is no compensation,” Dingle points out.

“You want to include compensation and the levy is going to skyrocket.”

Abandoning the Facts

For Brown though, it’s the goal of the New Zealand beekeeping industry to eliminate AFB that is fanciful, not his claims.

“It’s not going to happen. Anyone with half a brain knows it is not going to happen,” he says.

A big hurdle to eradication is the number of abandoned beehives in New Zealand, due to a downturn in honey prices in recent years, a fact the Agency has previously acknowledged. However, Brown has sensationalised the issue in Springbank Honey’s online postings, placing the number of abandoned beehives at a whopping 500,000. With just under 600,000 registered honey bee colonies in New Zealand as of 2023, following a peak of 918,000 in 2019, Brown’s claims fall well outside the data available.

A reduction in hive numbers does not mean the hives have been abandoned either and, when questioned on the issue, the Agency says in the last 12 months it has been made aware of just 682 colonies across the country that were unregistered and had to be destroyed as posing a risk. About half of those apiaries were in North Canterbury though they say, and an AFB problem was not found in the equipment.

More to Come?

So, while Brown may not have presented evidence to back up many of his claims, it hasn’t stopped them spreading far and wide and he says Springbank Honey will continue to fight – in court and online – for what they believe is right, and that is changes to the Biosecurity Act.

“At the end of the day this is not about us beekeepers, this is political,” Brown says.

“I’m not actually doing this for me. I don’t want it to happen to other people and I would love this Act to be changed. What they can do under that Act is so draconian.”

Springbank Honey owner Steve Brown and his children and staff in the business have faced a challenging few weeks since being ordered to destroy equipment, but he says they will fight on.

It’s not the first time he has fronted a drive for change in the beekeeping industry, with Brown’s claims that glyphosate was killing his beehives part of a television report in 2020 which ultimately threatened New Zealand honey exports to Japan and has since lumped significant honey testing requirements onto beekeepers and exporters. The current AFB issue runs the risk of a similar outcome, with honey exports to China already strictly limited to those with tests that prove them to be negative of AFB spores. There is the potential for other countries to follow suit, despite AFB posing no risk to humans.

From Long’s perspective, in the day-to-day management of the AFB PMP, the publicity has been intriguing.

“Destroying large amounts of gear has happened, historically, in the sector. The only difference being, there is social media now and there wasn’t the same level of social media 10, 15 years ago,” she says.

“It has created a lot of emotional response and, because it was so widely shared, a lot of people who are not beekeepers, who are just members of the general public and who do not know about this disease or the Pest Management Plan, and that this is how we deal with AFB in New Zealand have seen it. There was a lot of emotional response from overseas in seeing what they were seeing.

“Once that died down, we found the narrative changed a bit and there was some healthy debate going on between beekeepers and what the right way to manage AFB is. Then the conversation moved to vaccines and antibiotics. Which we are quite thankful that a lot of beekeepers are against. The sector wants to extend into new, high-value markets, and these are not something they are looking to as an option. By and large the support for the Agency remains and we are heartened to see it.”

That’s a silver-lining of sorts for the Agency, to what has been a large cloud of smoke. Regardless of the hot air surrounding the issues, plus disagreements and miscommunications, a beekeeping business, its owner and staff have all been hard hit.

Brown says they have “had their moments” over a challenging couple of weeks, but adds, “I know I am in the right and we will carry on”.


 

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