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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Talking Points from a Science Symposium Growing in Popularity

A mix of detailed in-depth scientific presentation and more generalised discussion over beekeeping and industry matters hallmarked the 3rd Annual New Zealand Honey Bee Research Symposium in Christchurch recently.

Beekeepers, research professionals and students came together on June 29, the day prior to Apiculture New Zealand’s national conference in Christchurch, at the Te Pae Convention Centre. Around 100 gathered to hear 25 15-minute presentations on research that is being undertaken or called for. The day was capped by an opportunity for “industry discussion” where beekeepers voiced their opinion on where industry research would be best focused.

Around 100 people gathered at Te Pae Convention Centre for the 3rd Annual NZ Honey Bee Research Symposium on June 29.

Varroa was, unsurprisingly, a hot topic, both in terms of research already conducted and where beekeepers believe the science community can bring them gains. Overall the day’s topics were wide ranging though, from that pesky parasitic mite, to wasp biocontrols, diastase, pollen analysis, pesticides, AFB, training in apiculture and much more.

The varroa mite research of Victoria University of Wellington students, under the guidance of Prof. Phil Lester, was a highlight of the event and stimulated discussion amongst the beekeepers gathered. None more so than that of Rose McGruddy, who took out the award for best student talk for presentation of her research into the use of RNAi to control varroa – a very promising line of work.

Top student presenters at the Honey Bee Research Symposium were, from left, Rose McGruddy on the use of RNAi to control varroa, Amber Bell on low diastase levels in NZ honey and Damien Fevre on the influence of nutrition and genetics on queen egg laying.

The symposium was initially held online in 2020, then in Rotorua last winter where around 60 delegates attended. Event organiser Ashley Mortensen says she is pleased with the growth in popularity and expects the event to continue next year.

Some key takeaways…

· GoFundMe: Research scientists are always quick to mention struggles to fund their work. That was once again a theme of the event, with their concerns echoed by veteran beekeepers Alan McCaw and Barry Foster, both who have extensive governance experience. They remonstrated the need for the beekeeping industry to fund research. “The industry needs a cohesive policy on research. What is the plan?” McCaw asked.

· Samples for goodness sake: The industry discussion to close the symposium saw the concern of varroa resistance to common miticide treatments raised, with dnature diagnostics and research lab technical director John Mackay imploring concerned beekeepers to take samples of bees and mites. “For goodness sake take samples and put them in your freezer, then make the call as to what you want to do. Without samples you have no options. Just dead hives.”

· Our day has come: Also during that discussion, veteran Hawke’s Bay beekeeper John Berry raised concern at the virus loadings now present in hives, with his colonies particularly hard hit this autumn. “When it hits you, you will be wiped out. We always knew this day was coming. Well, it has come. We need to research it and find out what is happening.”

· I got it from my mumma: Prof Peter Dearden of Otago Uni stepped in to present student Astra Heywood’s work into ‘parental meiotic contribution in honey bees’, which he called “a remarkable piece of work”. Heywood’s early-stage research looks to have confirmed that certain genetic characteristics in queen bees are consistently inherited maternally. It could lead to the conclusion that genetic improvements may be easier to achieve than beekeepers previously believed, as the largely uncontrolled open and polygamous mating habits of honey bees and thus varied paternal genetics have lower representation among offspring. “I’m very excited by this, I’m glad you are,” Dearden responded to an encouraged beekeeper.

· Doing it themselves: Updates on research into varroa resistant bees were well received. Vic Uni’s Tessa Pilkington presented her investigation into a beekeeping operation where hives were left to fend for themselves against varroa. The results so far show a shorter incubation period in the colonies is resulting in lower mite populations – just one hour less time as capped brood has resulted in an 8.3% reduction in mite tallies as varroa have less time to reproduce in the brood. The supposed resistant hives were measured as having young bees emerge 10.5 hours sooner than the usual 21 days, perhaps explaining their ability to survive treatment-free. Meanwhile the symposium was also updated on the work of Rae Butler’s Bee Smart Breeding programme, with the Mid Canterbury beekeeper demonstrating progress in developing varroa sensitive hygiene (VSH) traits, such as bees removing varroa from brood, in her line of bees.

· Varroa Taking the Pill?: “We might have a varroa contraceptive on our hands. The pill for mites,” claimed Rose McGruddy after explaining that RNAi (a natural form of supressing gene expression) was shown to hinder varroa reproduction. Colonies subject to the RNAi (fed through sugar syrup), saw little difference in adult mite survival, but a big reduction in young mites. Field trials await this summer.

· Cocktail time: The ABAtE research into active bacteriophages to target AFB infections is always of interest to beekeepers, and Danielle Kok of Massey Uni gave an update – they have been able to locate phages which they believe can achieve 93% coverage of AFB strains in New Zealand. Those phages are to be combined to form a “cocktail” which will be lab tested in the near future. Little umbrellas not included.

· A virus to beat a virus?: Another from the Vic Uni stable, Antoine Felden may be on the path to locating a virus to supress one of beekeepers’ worst nightmares – deformed wing virus. Where VDV-2 (varroa destructor virus 2) is present in mites in high amounts, then DWV is shown to be low. Felden’s call for funding to extend the project was heard, with McCaw, a trustee of the Honey Industry Trust which funds industry research, expressing interest.

· Coming soon…: Felden also said beekeepers should look out for a research paper into ants’ ability to spread DWV, which would be published “in the next few weeks”. It seems the team at Vic Uni have been busy little bees…

· Help Wanted: AFB Management Agency AP1 Marco Gonzalez appealed to the research community to consider ways in which they can assist the national goal of AFB elimination, outlining a wide range of areas for potential research. Exploring the true cost of AFB, creating devices which mimic the hive disease for training purposes, development of detection tools using AI or sound recognition, creating more environmentally-friendly hive materials when destroyed and many more concepts were floated, as well as “if you find a better way for beekeepers to managed varroa it will help AFB incidence”. There goes that mite again…

· Filling the training gaps: Veteran beekeeping mentor David Woodward, currently overseeing Otago Polytechnic’s Level 3 & 4 training programmes, highlighted the potential for greater beekeeping training, including in diploma and degree level.

· Wasps be gone: Landcare Research scientist Bob Brown has been busy importing hoverflys (volucella inanis), as well as the “wasp nest beetle” (metoecus paradoxus) as a biocontrol for common and German wasps. In the UK, where the bio-agents are from, it can take five weeks to find 20 wasp nests, whereas in New Zealand it takes just a matter of hours he says. So, Brown is working on importing more of the hoverflys, and some have been released in NZ already. Progress would have been faster had the first shipment not been left to sit on the airport tarmac for two days and 90% of the insects been “lost”. Freight issues these days huh…

Volucella inanis hoveryfly which has been released as a bio-control against wasps.

· Pollen ID & more trees: Linda Newstrom-Lloyd and Angus McPherson of Trees for Bees Research Trust both had speaking slots, taking the opportunity to introduce their new book based on simplifying pollen identification for beekeepers and explain its value, as well as the role the Trust is playing – improving hive health and vigour as well as reducing both apiary visits and the need for supplementary feeding of hives.

· Late risers: That some bee colonies have a tendency to begin foraging noticeably later in the day than others, was a key finding of Madeline Post’s research across 70 hives and seven sites in Cromwell fruit pollination for AbacusBio. Bases equipped with iApis monitoring measured weight, in and out activity and entrance temperature. A major takeaway – perhaps we should be targeting certain hives, such as late risers, to certain crop varieties for greater pollination success.

· Diastase doubts: Diastase is currently used, by markets all around the world, as a measure that honey has been stored and at high temperature. However, Waikato Uni’s Amber Bell believes that the diastase test “has had its day as a tool for determining honey quality”, following her work on stored honey which showed that compounds in the honey, such as MGO, impacted diastase levels too. Further findings of conflicting results between low diastase and low HMF also puts the role of diastase testing into question.

· Staying at Waikato Uni: Anya Nobel’s research into the bacteria on the leaf surface of manuka honey and its impact on qualities of manuka honey is continuing. Manuka and kanuka trees have been found to have distinct leaf surface bacteria, while regional differentiation is also observed. “There are a huge number of bacteria only found on manuka. This is an incredibly exciting starting point for future questions,” Nobel said, while hinting the work could be useful in proving New Zealand manuka’s unique qualities and authentication.


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