Among the most keenly anticipated speakers at this year’s Apiculture New Zealand National Conference will be renowned American beekeeper Randy Oliver, who freely publishes a range of his own applied honeybee research via www.ScientificBeekeeping.com. With 1000 hives made available to him for field trials, the Californian will have plenty of research updates to share with Kiwi beekeepers. A month out from the June 24-26 conference, he Zoomed in to discuss his latest work, New Zealand’s management of varroa mite and what motivates him to continue his “scientific beekeeping”.
While many beekeepers endeavour to carry out scientific trials and research work within their own hives, few – if any – have been able to match the success of Oliver in, firstly, gaining results of value to the everyday beekeeper and, secondly, disseminating them globally.
For that reason, he is a sought-after speaker at beekeeping events all around the world and has visited New Zealand several times previously for such purposes. This time around, global pandemic or not, due to a recent series of chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments, the Californian beekeeper would not have been in a position to travel across the Pacific.
The video-link setup will therefore suit Oliver just fine, and prior to his cancer treatments he had been presenting “three or four times a week” in this manner and has become well practised at getting his messages out.
“My enjoyment in life is learning about things and sharing what I’ve learned,” Oliver says.
“That’s what the website is about. Just to inform others what I have learned myself about bee biology and how it applies to beekeeping.”
Oliver first started keeping bees in the 1960s, before earning a biological sciences degree, specialising in entomology, and then launched a more-than-40-year commercial beekeeping career. He has long conducted beekeeping field trials and for the past 15 years has been regularly presenting his findings through the American Bee Journal, his website and in person.
As he heads towards retirement, those trials are now his major focus.
“I love it, I worked out a deal for my sons to take over the business, under the condition that I’d have a thousand hives at my disposal for research at any time. That puts me way ahead of any researcher in the world,” Oliver says.
It’s an enviable position and currently he is putting those hives to use exploring the effectiveness of pollen substitutes and attempts to improve them, plus varroa mite treatments for use during the honey flow, which includes extended-release oxalic acid treatments.
Oliver’s presentation to the audience in Rotorua, scheduled for day two of the conference, will provide an update on his recent research findings.
“I’ve only got an hour to speak, so I have to choose what will be of most interest to beekeepers. The pollen substitute work will be very interesting. It looks like I have made a breakthrough in understanding how to analyse pollen substitutes and predict how they’re going to perform. That breakthrough will be of great value to any manufacturer of pollen subs, in that they can see what it is deficient in.”
Many New Zealand beekeepers will know Oliver from his trials with extended-release oxalic acid treatments for varroa, a method he has thoroughly tested since 2015 and disseminated the results.
In his previous visits to our shores, Oliver says he has found Kiwi beekeepers behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to managing varroa mite – simply because the destructive parasite has landed on our shores so recently, compared to other nations.
“What I see in New Zealand lags behind our experience in the US, and the US lags behind Europe. Beekeepers are always reinventing the wheel, rather than looking at countries that are ahead of them. Looking at the European model, you can see our future.
“When I go to New Zealand and speak there, it’s like deja vu, the guys are on the internet and all the things we talked about 10 years ago, are now current events. I think, you’re taking me back to ancient history again, why don’t you guys just jump ahead 10 years?”
That’s a fair question to ask for someone who doesn’t just talk the talk but who walks the walk by helping others make that “jump ahead” through the myriad of information made available on ScientificBeekeeping.com.
His work is funded, in large part, by donations made by fellow beekeepers who appreciate his trials and reports. For Oliver, the financial donations from beekeepers all over the world make his research work possible, but their moral support is what motivates him.
“The appreciation from beekeepers worldwide is what keeps me going. I get letters from countries I’ve barely heard of and they say, ‘Randy, you’re our main source of beekeeping information here for those of us who are making a living beekeeping’.
“That really is very gratifying to me to think that I am helping out people worldwide with just good honest information.”
CALIFORNIA’S BIG DRY
Randy Oliver may have largely retired from his family’s 2000-plus hive beekeeping operation based in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California, with his two sons taking the reigns, but he still keeps a close eye on operations and says that a prolonged drought is the biggest risk to Golden West Bees’ business.
“Climate change is affecting California more so than most of North America. We are in a mega drought right now, a drought that occurs every 500-1000 years. That makes beekeeping very difficult and we’re changing our practices to adapt to the changing climate,” Oliver says.
California suffered drought from 2012-16, but since a wet period in 2019, the last two years have seen the huge state suffer severe dry.
“Wholesale trees dying off, changing vegetation types and just lack of forage for the bees,” are the biggest impact to honeybees Oliver says. Then there is the risk of wildfire, something his family’s operation has managed to avoid, but not all beekeepers have been so lucky as the state has suffered large-scale fires in recent years.
June and July will see the honey flow continue in California, but after that the severe dry could mean a lean “fall” and winter period for the bees.