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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

Intergenerational Commercial Beekeeping and Scientific Precision

In this industry it is unusual to come across someone with a lifelong knowledge of how commercial beekeepers think, as well as a scientific career where consistent scientific methodologies have been undertaken. Dr Otto Hyink in Dunedin is one such beekeeper-scientist though, with a passion for oxalic acid staple treatments. Maggie James learns how he has created his own niche in New Zealand beekeeping and shaped a lifestyle tailored to a young family’s needs.

By Maggie James

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.

An intergenerational beekeeper, Hyink has battled varroa and, in the last four years, much of his beekeeping energy has been dedicated to improving the use of oxalic acid strips in his 100-150 hives, and educating others on their use. That’s far from all though as the scientist-beekeeper also pursues his interest in queen bee genetics within his breeding programme, encourages hobbyists and assists Otago University in beekeeping research.

Oxalic Acid Staple/Strip Manufacture & Use

“Resistance to proprietary miticides in New Zealand, as far as I am aware, has not been scientifically documented,” Hyink says, prefacing his thoughts on the use of oxalic acid treatments.

“There is plenty of hearsay. However, overseas, I know that a mutation in mites that confers resistance to fluvalinate/flumethrin is confirmed. There is very strong selection pressure for mites to develop resistance to these products, otherwise they will die out. Consequently, these products should only be seen as a medium-term measure.”

Hyink first started using oxalic acid staples for autumn treatments in 2019 and now that’s all he uses to control Varroa destructor in his hives at Otto’s Bees.

“I use my own homemade strips, and trust what I make myself more than anything I can buy. As a scientist I have made many experimental solutions, and this involves getting things working right. The solutions I make can always be trusted, and I feel totally in control of everything when doing this myself.”

Whilst Hyink happily spreads oxalic strip manufacture advice (including on the Dunedin Beekeepers Club website), he does not produce the product for sale. Three treatment rounds in a season work best for him – early spring, early summer, and early autumn.

“Strips stay in colonies for around two months. In stronger hives I sometimes add some new ones halfway through that period. The bees will often chew most of the strips away over this time. My aim has always been to set up a composting spot for them, but I haven’t got around to it yet.

“I do get hives that have too many mites, and these hives do take longer to bounce back. I ask myself why a particular hive is more susceptible to varroa, and do I want to keep that hive’s particular genetics?”

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.

Many beekeepers are annoyed that they can make their own oxalic acid treatments, yet there is no equivalent proprietary product on the New Zealand market.

“There appears to be variables as to how well oxalic acid strips work. I can give recipes, and beekeepers tell me they follow this to the letter, but they don’t get my efficacy.

“If a product works well in Dunedin, but, for example, not in Auckland, how do we make it work throughout New Zealand?” Hyink wonders.

“A proprietary product must do what the manufacturer says it will do, but there seems to be quite a variance in results. It costs quite a bit of money to make a proprietary product, then test, evaluate, and bring it to the market.”

Compounding efficacy issues is the highly varied climatic conditions throughout the country. Subtropical areas may not have a brood break, whereas beekeepers in more southern areas will have good brood breaks, the Dunedin beekeeper points out.

Another major variable is the medium used and Hyink has found suppliers, such as Bunnings or Mitre 10, can change the products stocked without warning. Thus, the paper tape at those stores now differs from what was available when he first began making staples, and it does not soak the oxalic acid/glycerine solution as readily. Consequently 2023 has seen Hyink trialling various cardboard mediums.

Having never used oxalic acid in towels or pads, Hyink doesn’t comment on the practise. However, he has quite definite reasonings for using strips as his medium of choice.

“I wanted a treatment option that would work regardless of colony size and conformation. The staples or strips are a format that works for everything, whether it be a four frame nuc or a double brood box hive. I cannot really see the towels placed over the top of frames working well for the likes of nucs, or even a single brood box colony. I am a big believer in mite treatments needing to be in amongst the brood, where the mites are, and strips enable this.”

Propagating Bees

While the organic treatments clearly captivate much of Hyink’s beekeeping attention, breeding queen bees is another passion. He runs his own breeding programme for both Italian and Carniolan strains, which are very much kept separate.

Heating oxalic acid-glycerine solutions must be done correctly to ensure efficacy of oxalic acid staple/strip treatments in beehives, and so Otto Hyink is free with his advice to fellow beekeepers.

Carniolan queen cells are produced for the commercial sector, prized for their hardy traits. For urban beekeepers he recommends Italian stock. Previously he has used Betta Bees queens, but last season got a breeder queen from further afield.

“Temperament is king, particularly in a town environment where aggressive bees can be a nuisance for town people. I do one graft per week throughout the season for hobbyists, who can order and pick up a few day-10 queen cells every Thursday at 9am.”

The queens, as well as some hive and nuc sales, provide income, while the honey crops in Dunedin can be fickle, due to variable weather, according to Hyink. For this reason, running full-depth colonies can be difficult. So, initially the business was all three-quarter depth boxes, but now he includes some full-depth, as they are more likely to be required by commercial customers.

The main spring pollen sources in the Dunedin area are gorse, hawthorn, and broom and there is no pollen dearth period. Hyink runs good, healthy beehives, and believes keeping yards smaller is crucial for this aim, particularly in autumn when robbing is a potential major problem. Therefore, the sole operator runs each apiary with a maximum of eight hives.

The Hyinks’ Intergenerational Beekeeping History

Hyink has varied connections to the beekeeping industry and they shouldn’t come as a surprise. It is something he has been involved in his whole life, following in the footsteps of his father Gerrit, who has been a commercial beekeeper for over 40 years.

The big step to becoming a Kiwi beekeeper began in 1982, when Gerrit Hyink brought his family from Holland to New Zealand for a fresh start. Thus, six-year-old Otto was uprooted to Katikati.

“Lacking English speaking skills, I had to learn quickly when thrown into the new environment… or sink!” he says looking back on those early years in New Zealand.

Hyink senior had been a hobbyist beekeeper in Holland, having learnt to keep bees from his father. In Katikati Gerrit went into a beekeeping partnership, since dissolved, with other Dutch immigrants. Currently Gerrit keeps 100-200 hives through spring, and up until last season ran his own RMP extraction plant at Katikati. Adding to the family beekeeping connection, Otto’s brother Wouter is a full-time commercial beekeeper too, at Waikino, located between Waihi and Paeroa.

So, while beekeeping might well and truly be in the blood, it was not Otto Hyink’s first career calling. Next month we will learn how study and science came first, but how it was his children who helped turn him toward launching Otto’s Bees.

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


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