Strong Headwinds for Canterbury Beekeepers

Many beekeeping businesses are facing tough times, most notably due to low honey prices in recent years. The troubles for some neither begin or end there though, and so Maggie James caught up with fellow Selwyn, Canterbury, beekeepers Rod and Jo Dreaver of Bee My Honey to get their thoughts on some major issues facing apiarists in their area: pollination competition, overstocking of beehives, inadequately experienced beekeepers, varroa bombs, disease outbreaks, lack of loyalty and increased costs in production and bureaucracy.

At 19 years of age, Rod Dreaver started with two hives in his parents’ backyard and has now worked as a commercial beekeeper for over 33 years, including 18 months with Airborne Honey, several seasons in Canada and USA, and 11 years with Hantz Honey. In 2002 Rod and wife Jo, purchased 350 hives and a year later another 450 hives, whilst Rod continued to work part time at Hantz Honey. Since 2004 Bee My Honey has been a fulltime business for the couple, along with three now teenage children.

Rod and Jo Dreaver of Bee My Honey. The Canterbury beekeepers of 33 years’ experience say small businesses like theirs are facing ever-increasing challenges to survival.

The quality of the business’s produce has been recognised, winning the Special Reserve Honey category at the Apiculture NZ National Honey Competition in 2017, along with placings in honey dew and creamed clover categories. Then in 2018 and 2019 Rod and Jo finally managed to build their own RMP processing plant and family dwelling, both on the same site at Lincoln.

Bee My Honey undertake some contract honey extraction, produce bulk honey as well as package their own clover, beech dew, manuka, kanuka, brassicas, and lavender honey for retail sale on site, online and some retail outlets.

On top of those honeys, Bee My Honey also provide pollination services to a range of crops in their local area, generally radish, carrot, blackcurrant, canola, kale, white clover and – up until a few weeks ago – lavender. And that is what this story was initially going to be about – moving hives in and out of the lavender fields like the Dreavers have been doing for the last 15 years, but instead they have a tale of caution that is emblematic of numerous wider issues facing beekeepers.

Pollination Battles

Rod arrived at the lavender field a couple of days prior to hive delivery to find approximately 60 full depth double brood-box hives supered up for the flow, belonging to an Ashburton beekeeper who up until now has not had hives north of the Rakaia River, as far as Dreaver is aware.

“The farmer reckoned he told me, but there was definitely no notification by phone or email of not needing my services and this was a most frustrating way to find that there was no pollination.

“I tried all weekend to renegotiate with the guy, but he was adamant that my bees were producing honey that was rightly his. He just could not understand that I acknowledged it was his land, but he needs my bees to get pollination – it’s a two-way situation! He wasn’t interested in loyalty, negotiation, or lack of notification. I also rang his new beekeeper.

“I had spent three months tickling 50 hives along to an acceptable standard for this contract, and next thing I know, I now have to work out where I am going to put an extra 50 hives in a location that they will pay for themselves. The lack of communication and being booted out is exasperating.”

A jar of Bee My Honey lavender honey, gained following a successful grower-beekeeper relationship that now appears to have gone by the way-side.

The issue is not limited to that one instance though, with increased competition for pollination contracts causing friction between beekeepers and growers across Canterbury’s renown seed growing plains.

“So far this season, this is the second incident of ousting or attempted underbidding. I am one of two local beekeeping outfits placing hives on the same property for blackcurrant pollination. This involves hundreds of hives, and we found ourselves being told by the farmer that another competitor could undercut us by $10 less per hive. Luckily, me and my colleague were able to negotiate, retaining last season’s pollination price,” Dreaver says.

“Up until now, in Ellesmere, we haven’t had to deal with these underhand dealings. If I am offered a farm site in this area, I talk with the farmer and if I think there is a beekeeper involved, I phone that beekeeper. Fortunately, most of the farmers around here are loyal and are happy with my services, but I have twice had instances where the farmer has rung with a beekeeper on the doorstep who wants to undercut me!”

Dreaver says the price beekeepers are willing to charge for their pollination services was inevitably going to reduce “once the honey bubble burst”.

“There are now too many beekeepers chasing the contracts. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of loyalty in business these days and I really feel for good established beekeepers who are principally pollinators and have chosen to pollinate rather than chase the manuka dollars. They will be the ones suffering the drop in prices the most. Every man and his dog is chasing pollination and a lot of them are willing to do it for cheap, just to get a bit of a cashflow, and that automatically drops the prices and the living standards for everyone.

“Generally, competition in an industry is healthy, but the problem now is that there is so much undercutting and overstocking, that no one is making a dollar,” Dreaver says.

Production Costs

The large population of hives in the Selwyn area is coupled with reduced forage as increasing areas of land has been converted to dairy farming and wind pollinated cereal and grain crops over the past 20 years, while beekeeping costs are on the rise too.

“Around here, up until recently it was recognised that it took $4.50 to produce 1kg of honey, but post Covid we have increases in fuel costs, sugar, inflation and hive treatments, which are having to be more frequent. Therefore, I reckon that the honey prices now need to be a minimum of $7/kg to cover costs.

“Then there is the number of beehives that I have had to burn in recent, due to others not knowing how to prevent, recognise and control AFB,” Dreaver says.

That is another major issue that beekeepers in the Selwyn area of the Canterbury Plain are facing Dreaver says – a high incidence of AFB, worsened by not just the high population of beehives but a lack of experience among those working them.

Rod Dreaver drumming off in the Bee My Honey extraction shed, built on the Dreaver property in 2018.

Where once Kiwi beekeepers gained experience through working for or with a variety of experienced commercial beekeepers, as well as embarking on northern hemisphere beekeeping experiences in the New Zealand offseason, more recent times have seen greater amounts of unexperienced people jump straight in to keeping hives.

“We now appear to have an industry with many inexperienced commercial beekeepers and the same with many new hobbyists. There is also the occasional farmer who wants to save pollination fees, and this has ended up with them having to burn their AFB hives. Until we have a big correction downwards in the number of hives and ‘beekeepers’ it’s going to stay the same and a lot of us will struggle to stay afloat.

“The last few years, many beekeepers bought hives at the top of the market, and almost every season since has been a hard one. Many carry far too much debt, and to survive they are getting rather underhand. Many of these new beekeepers have never worked in another outfit, or perhaps just very briefly, and they have no idea how to manage hives in a commercial operation. Neglected bees are going to cause major problems.”

Big Decisions

Even if hives are not neglected, some of the decision making coming from larger beekeeping operations around the amount of hives placed in the area also troubles Dreaver.

“A hands-on sole operator is aware of everything they do to their hives, and what the production is. They are not going to bother with sites that are constantly non-productive. Whereas a larger operation is not looking at profitability of sole sites, just as long as the company makes a profit somewhere along the line. They make their money with the numbers of hives they are holding, and when you get hives that aren’t being operated to full capacity, the company is cutting their nose off to spite their face, along with making life uncomfortable for everyone else.”

The discomfort could leave Bee My Honey in “dire straits” if it is a bad honey season, and Dreaver says they have survived through the past year due to one round of the government Wage Subsidy and Working for Families payments. This year’s lockdown they were not eligible for the Wage Subsidy, but were able to do honey deliveries, which “saved their bacon”.

As part of their cost cutting, the Dreavers no longer belong to any industry organisation, and no longer attend conferences in the North Island. They look forward to next year’s conference in Christchurch though.

Despite many commercial beekeepers struggling for survival, Dreaver still believes there is a perception in New Zealand that beekeeping is easy money.

“The public do not understand how hard beekeepers work. Many think that honey is produced all year round, not just six to eight weeks of the year. TV documentaries often featuring beekeeping operations show clean and tidy looking beekeepers in new overalls, clean trucks in fabulous weather and making the work look like it’s a breeze. It’s now real hard graft dealing with varroa bombs, constant AFB in the area, and competition for winter sites.

“Once upon a time beekeeping was an enjoyable and profitable occupation, but it’s ceasing to be either,” Dreaver laments.

Expenses and the Unknown Future

The rising cost of doing business and the aforementioned price for honey being below cost of production are increasingly taking their toll on beekeeping businesses such as his, Dreaver believes.

“The only thing that seems to be rising in this industry is bureaucratic fees, and the people to whom we pay these make a good living paid for by our fees, while we live on less than the minimum wage.

“The industry is in bad shape, and an industry needs the faith of the people working in the industry. Whilst many of us are independents, people in the group should be looking after each other and this is not happening.”

While greater respect between beekeeping business owners around hive placements and pollination contracts would be a start, ultimately the price of honey needs to increase to cover mounting cost of production the Canterbury beekeepers believe.

Jo Dreaver noted that most supermarkets they have previously supplied were totally ruthless in their dealings, so the couple have removed their honey off the shelves from all but one of these outlets. Instead, much of their trade is online or onsite at their shop, where most customers are in the 50-plus age bracket.

“To us it is a major concern that a lot of the younger generation don’t like honey and it has a bad rap associated with sugar. To entice a younger generation there needs to be an industry drive on all the benefits of honey in comparison to cane and corn sugars. A campaign needs to be started to attract the next generation to consume and use honey,” Jo says.

“We have many Indian and Chinese customers, and it never ceases to absolutely amaze them that our honey is unadulterated without additives or antibiotics.”

The Dreavers would like to see new research, or consideration of overseas research, on the medical properties of ingested honey in gastrointestinal disorders, cardiovascular issues, oral health, constipation, sleep issues, diarrhoea, and cancers to help promote the product.

So, while Bee My Honey continues to produce quality honey and strong healthy colonies for pollination contracts, there is risk of the business – and others like it – falling over should current operating conditions persist. From an increasingly competitive pollination market, to hive over stocking leading to greater varroa and AFB threats, plus the rising cost of production and low returns for honey, there are gale-force headwinds in the Selwyn district.

The Dreavers are experienced, knowledgeable, hardworking, and enthusiastic in all aspects of their business, but is that enough to make it all work?


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