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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Notes from the Honey Bee Research Symposium

Beekeepers, scientists and anyone with an interest in honey bees, honey, and the environment they operate in packed into Plant and Food Research’s Ruakura site in Hamilton on June 17 for the 5th New Zealand Honey Bee Research Symposium.

With numbers in attendance slightly exceeding the supposed cap of 100, seats were hard to find as 20 scientists and researchers presented their work and findings from the last 12 months, in 15-minute blocks. With topics as diverse as varroa treatments, bee breeding programmes, propolis, mānuka honey, pollination effectiveness, American foulbrood (AFB) prevention, pesticides and even maramataka (the Māori lunar calendar), you could be forgiven for thinking the apiculture research industry was well resourced. However, an open floor discussion to close the event was particularly enlightening, with scientists making it clear that they are under-funded and spending a far too greater proportion of their time seeking funding.

Honey Bee Research Symposium sponsor representatives, at left, and winners of the best student presentation awards at the June 17 event. From left, James Sainsbury (Plant and Food Research), John Mackay (dnature diagnostics and research), Rose McGruddy (Victoria University of Wellington), Erin Jones (Texas A&M) and Epernay Carta (P&F Research).

Here's some notes from an information-packed symposium…

  • Time wasted: “We spend a lot of time working on grant proposals,” explained event organiser Prof. Phil Lester of Victoria University of Wellington, who was once again joined by a contingent of students undertaking honey bee research. “If you want specific work done, fund it,” he advised.

  • Rudderless: “You are all in the engine room and no one is on the bridge to see where you are going,” analogised experienced honey researcher Terry Braggins. “What is the strategic plan for research? What is the pathway for other New Zealand Honeys to move towards mānuka and how does that compare to AFB, or varroa research? What is needed is a coordinated industry response, from beekeepers to exporters.” He called the amount the $460million honey industry spent on research “diddly squat”, admonishing – “pull your socks up”.

  • Very promising: One area of research that has been successfully funded (largely by American biotech company GreenLight Biosciences, who hope to bring a product to market), is the cutting-edge RNA-interference (aka ‘gene silencing’) varroa control work of Victoria University. No fewer than four Vic Uni scientists presented on the topic. Their studies have been continuing in the field, where pouches of ‘Vadescana’ sugar syrup have been administered to hives which then pass the gene-silencing to bees and varroa. It has been found to result in a “significant” reduction in varroa reproduction and thus populations, but had no impact on mite survival. It was not as effective as amitraz treatment. A separate study on the impact of the treatment on honey bee health showed the RNA-i treated bees lived longer and were more active foragers than the control group, further demonstrating the potential of the product.

  • Texas Two: Visiting from Texas A&M University in the USA were Juliana Rangel and Erin Jones. Jones has studied the developmental state of honey bee colonies and its impact on pollination effectiveness, with her findings reinforcing that increased brood presence results in increased pollen foraging. Rangel’s research into nosema has found that queens infected with the parasite possess a higher speed across the frame, their retinue was smaller and they have a higher egg laying rate – perhaps because infection causes them to eat more.

The 5th iteration of the New Zealand Honey Bee Research Symposium proved more popular than ever, with over 100 people packing into Plant and Food Research’s Ruakura venue in Hamilton on June 17.
  • Big Difference: Unique Mānuka Factor Honey Association (UMFHA) chief executive Tony Wright presented their research into mānuka tree varieties which identified differences between Leptospermum Scoparium DNA in New Zealand and Australia plants. It found they are taxonomically divergent enough that they should be classified as different species.

  • From the Crop: Mark Goodwin updated progress on his nectar analysis project which aims to harvest nectar straight from the crop, or foregut, of honey bees. The goal is to get a percentage characterisation of honey based off nectar content, “like pollen analysis, but with a little bit more science behind it”. Nectar sampling direct from flowers is time-consuming, so the plan is to harvest bees themselves as they forage on flowers this coming honey season. Watch this space.

  • Pick Me: Ashburton bee breeder Rae Butler and scientist Linda Newstrom-Lloyd extolled the virtues of increasing varroa sensitive hygiene (VSH) traits in our bee stocks. “It’s just a trait, it is not a line of bees. It can be combined with the best other traits,” Newstrom-Lloyd explained. Use of the Harbro method of VSH analysis of queens has helped Butler build up a line of bees high in the trait. All commercial beekeepers will have a level of VSH traits in their stock, it’s just a matter of adding it to breeder queen selection protocols to boost its prominence, Butler encouraged.

  • More than Poplar: Propolis in New Zealand differs in compounds between that collected in spring and autumn, and between poplar trees and natives, a Plant and Food Research study has found. Michelle Taylor presented the results, saying the common definition of our propolis as “poplar-type”, akin to North America, China and Europe, is probably selling us short.

  • Southern Toughness: A strain of AFB in Otago is proving difficult to kill for Canterbury University researchers leading the ABAtE programme to create a ‘vaccine’ of sorts. They have spent several years collecting bacteriophages from around New Zealand that kill paenibacillus larvae (AFB) spores and combining the most potent into a “cocktail”. Field trials will soon launch, but they would desperately like to add the last missing ‘phages to the mix and so will soon be calling for submission of more soil samples which may hold the ‘phages.


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