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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

The 24 Million Dollar Question

The question is perhaps akin to ‘how long is a piece of string?’, but Colony Loss scientist Pike Stahlmann-Brown and a team of commercial beekeeping managers have attempted to put a value on what each honey bee colony death in New Zealand costs the beekeeper, and the apiculture industry in total. Value is the key word, because, while their answer to the question of, 'what is the value of a colony loss?' is not universal to all beekeeping operations, Stahlmann-Brown believes there is value in their research for both beekeeper on the ground and the wider industry.

Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research scientist Pike Stahlmann-Brown hopes his latest research can help beekeepers assess the cost of colony loss within their own businesses, and also help gain the issue of colony loss more attention and research.

Thirty-eight dollars and four cents. That’s the magic number, the final ‘value’ of a commercial beekeeper’s individual colony loss. Or $24,181,835 across the whole industry if you prefer. Of course, that value reached in the recently published Valuing over-winter colony losses for New Zealand’s commercial beekeepers paper by Stahlmann-Brown (et al. 2022) is, in practice, not intended to provide any sort of silver-bullet solution though. The authors are more than aware that it is but an estimate and, furthermore, highly variable depending on the beekeeping business suffering the loss.

“From the perspective of beekeepers, when you're deploying a hive you have the known costs and the unknowns,” Stahlmann-Brown says when explaining why he undertook the study.

“The knowns are things like how many varroa control strips are used, labour costs, or how many trips are made to manage the hives, that sort of thing. But an unknow is, whether that colony is going to survive. So, if we could put some kind of expectations around the cost of colony loss, then beekeepers, especially commercial beekeepers, will be able to build that cost function into their businesses.”

To calculate that cost, a range of information was gathered from around the apiculture industry based off the 2021 season, from the annual beekeeping Colony Loss Survey, to national honey export data, indicative honey prices from buyers, and also the amount of land area planted in crops which usually provide paid-pollination work for beehives. That data allowed for estimated values to be reached for a range of income streams to the beekeeper, such as the average bulk-buy price per-kg of mānuka ($23.90), multi-mānuka ($8.34) and non-mānuka ($4.17) honeys, and also costs – $60 for a spring mated-queen, $7.50 per brood chamber for Apivar or Bayvarol varroa treatments.

As well as those direct forms of income or expense, the opportunity cost of various beekeeping practices was considered, such as splitting hives. For this the collective expertise of managers from large commercial beekeeping entities Comvita (Gabriel Torres), Mānuka Health (Brian McCall) and Taylor Pass Honey Company (Rex Butt) was relied upon. Stahlmann-Brown says he was surprised how regularly the trio “coalesced” on a common figure when valuing certain beekeeping practices, but admits the numbers are a “best guess”.

Estimations as to honey prices are also just that – an estimation – with the author saying the use of national honey export data to determine what ratio of beekeeper income comes from various floral types was the biggest “leap of faith” taken in their research, but one required in an industry lacking more comprehensive honey production data.

Regardless of the final figure of a cost per-beehive they reached, it is the methods used to get there that commercial beekeepers can benefit directly from as it helps inform “smart decision making”, Stahlmann-Brown explains.

“Some people are going to look at this and say, ‘this is actually exactly the management regime I would use’, others will see these calculations and say ‘I manage my hives a slightly different way and so those numbers don't appear to apply to me’. However, they can still use those equations to calculate what the ultimate cost of a hive loss would be for their operation. So, it is about really trying to provide not only some additional information for beekeepers, but also a service of sorts, a tool for them to use.”

The paper presents several equations which, upon first glance, might appear convoluted to anyone who hasn’t studied mathematics past high school (and plenty who have!), but Stahlmann-Brown believes any beekeeper intent on plugging in their own numbers should be able to follow along.

“All it is, frankly, is addition, subtraction and multiplication. So, while they might look complicated, they're not intended to be. My hope is that, if you have somebody who's really inspired to work this out for their own operation, they can. We put every number into the paper so they can do the math themselves and refer back to it. I'm hoping that it's not too cumbersome.”

Colony losses in New Zealand beehives have been on the increase, but new research will help beekeepers weigh up the cost of their management against the cost of colony death.

An aspect which may make one of the equations look convoluted to some is the inclusion of an “opportunity cost” factor as it pertains to simply buying a new beehive as opposed to the cost of making up a fresh split from an existing hive. That sort of detail to the study allows for the practical sort of business thinking a commercial beekeeper may need to go through when weighing up their management options.

While Stahlmann-Brown is keen to see beekeepers apply the research’s findings to their own operations, the paper itself stresses the importance of the findings to promoting ongoing research and tapping in to funding.

“We suggest the findings shown in this paper provide the basis of a business case for interested parties to invest in research to address all forms of colony loss and varroa in particular as the investment required can now be compared objectively to the potential long-term monetary gains," it states.

Stahlmann-Brown hopes it can help beekeepers work together too, by putting a value on any positive outcomes from cohesion.

“For 2021 we place losses at costing $24 million. I'm hoping that it will facilitate discussions in the industry, because it is big enough for us that we should be worried about it. So, maybe there's some value to thinking about coordinating varroa management, just as an example. Because if everybody's treating with the same product at the same time, maybe that leads to a better outcome.

“I’m also hoping it leads to discussions among government, frankly, because it's a great big loss.”

According to the New Zealand Colony Loss Survey, to which Stahlmann-Brown is the lead scientist, hive deaths are on the increase (going from 8.37% in 2015 to 13.59% in 2021). So, regardless of whether you agree with the working and research findings of the paper and their assessment of the figurative ‘piece of string’ being $24 million long, the string appears to be growing. How big of a problem that is for individual beekeeping operations, probably got easier to determine with the help of a few equations – even if they might take some ‘figuring’ out.


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