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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

The Honey Bee’s Early Years in New Zealand

Last month regular contributor Maggie James recapped her recent research into the early history of New Zealand beekeeping, exploring how it is believed the first honey bee colonies made their way to New Zealand. Now, in part two she looks into the dispersal of honey bees around New Zealand in the initial years of organised European settlement, with a few interesting titbits uncovered.

Following the work of early colonists to introduce honey bees to New Zealand, by the mid-1840s it was generally thought by those north of the Waikato River that bees were distributed widely throughout and New Zealand was now the land of milk and honey. Beehive boxes were being made to order in Wellington, as per William Cotton’s measurements. In 1848 Cotton wrote A Manual For New Zealand Beekeepers, describing basic beekeeping and hive production.

William Cotton’s A Manual for New Zealand Beekeepers, published in 1848, was one of the country’s earliest works dedicated to beekeeping.

There was a brisk business in honey bee exports from Australia to New Zealand, 20-30 hives per order. Due to the climate, bees appeared to thrive here. Chamber’s Papers for the People, 1852 notes in 1847 an upper North Island beehive produced a mighty 1211lb (549.31 kg) of honey, that some beekeepers were being overwhelmed by the amount of swarming, and that the land may well one day be overstocked with bee hives … a prophetical statement indeed!

In the 1840s honey and mead were imported from the UK and Australia. Meanwhile in the North Island and Nelson area, much domestic honey was being exhibited at agricultural and pastoral shows. By 1860 domestic shipments of honey were common and export honey trade was at its inception.

However, in Canterbury and further south the European honey bee appeared to be almost non-existent. In January 1852 the Lyttleton Times reported the arrival of two hives by ship from Nelson required to pollinate clover crops on The Plains; believed to be the first importation of bees into the Lyttelton settlement. Later that month, another edition noted hived bees at Port Levy, Banks Peninsula. Thereafter, hives were shipped further afield around the South Island.

Father’s Observations

Isaac Hopkins (1837-1925) has been called the “Father of Beekeeping” in New Zealand. He arrived in 1858 and went on to become a successful beekeeper, government apiarist and inspector of apiaries. He wrote several bee manuals and bequeathed £3000 to the Cawthron Institute in Nelson for bee research. Hopkins observed that by the 1860s bee nests in the bush were plentiful, and considerable quantities of honey were being sold by Māori – the country’s first commercial beekeepers.

Isaac Hopkins, known as “The Father of New Zealand Beekeeping” was a prominent early apiculturist and wrote extensively on the subject.

Tutin Honey Lessons

Perhaps the first deaths from ingesting tutin honey are recorded in a letter to the editor of the Daily Southern Cross newspapers on December 21, 1860. The letter, signed “Pro Bono Publico” (for the public good), notifies of a “native village” in the Coromandel in which numerous people have suffered illness and five died, with poisonous honey the suspected cause. “Everything in the shape of honey, bees, or boxes, was destroyed, so nothing remained for chemical examination,” the author stated.

To the Future

Increased commercial production of honey in New Zealand began in the late 1870s following the introduction of the Langstroth hive, which we still commonly use today.

In 1880 two Langstroth hives of Italian stock arrived successfully from California after many failed attempts. As noted in the Wellington Evening Post, 26 August 1880, the ship’s captain cared for them in his cabin on the 25-day voyage, San Francisco-Wellington, giving them fresh water each day over the combs. The hives were transferred to a Union Steam Ship Company vessel for delivery to the Christchurch Acclimatisation Society and a Mr Harrison of Coromandel.

By the mid-1880s numerous Italian – or Ligurian as they were commonly known in the 1800s – (Apis mellifera ligustica) beehives were being imported from Australia, Italy and the USA. Often these imports were unsuccessful, but intense efforts were made to improve New Zealand bee stocks. In December 1880 the Canterbury Beekeepers’ Association reported the high fatality rate of shipping hives from the USA.

In 1881 Isaac Hopkins, having successfully arranged for beehive imports, wrote under the title, “How to Prepare Bees for Shipping” for the American Bee Journal.

There was much difficulty in maintaining the yellow stock, but it was generally recognised these bees weren’t as aggressive as the black British bee, also commonly known as the western or European dark bee (Apis mellifera mellifera), while being better honey producers and crop pollinators.

To this day, much of New Zealand’s existing bee stock is Italian. Post varroa, many of the stroppy black “bush” bees have disappeared, much to the delight of many. Carniolan (Apis mellifera carnica) drone semen was imported in 2004 and this strain is here to stay too.

So, from sea voyages spanning months and the race to become the “first” apiarist in New Zealand, to modern day importations of drone semen, there’s a little bit of what I’ve managed to uncover in this rabbit-hole of research!

Thoughts, feelings or contributions to make on this story? Email


The Immigrant Bees 1788-1898, Vol IV, Peter Barrett

New Zealander, 13 February 1847

Lyttelton Times, 17 and 31 January 1852

Evening Post, 26 August 1880

North Otago Times, 9 December 1880

The Press, Page 4, 22 July 1925


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