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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

The Pragmatic Beekeeper

This spring is the first for 26 years that Tauranga beekeeper Dennis Crowley will not be in the business of bees, having sold his “couple of hundred” remaining Bay Bees hives. Beekeeping since the mid-1990s he’s rode the highs and lows of the mānuka honey industry, witnessed the boom of kiwifruit orchards in his area, plus varroa destructor’s emergence, while serving more than 10 years on the board of national industry groups – all hallmarked by a pragmatic approach to overcoming obstacles, both within his own business and wider industry.

Once he made the decision that beekeeping was the occupation for him, even total destruction of all his hives and hiveware was not going to stop Dennis Crowley. Yes, the successful Bay Bees business he built from 1996 to 2022 was initially decimated by American foulbrood (AFB) after Crowley bought 400 beehives from a Bay of Plenty (BOP) beekeeper in December 1996.

After 26 years as a commercial beekeeper in the Bay of Plenty, Dennis Crowley has retired, having sold all but two of his Bay Bees hives.

“I remember about three months after buying them I bumped into a very old beekeeper who introduced himself. I told him I bought ‘this guys’ hives,” Crowley picks up the story of a tough time early in his beekeeping journey.

“The first thing he said to me was ‘Oh, he’s got rid of his AFB problem then’. My heart sank.”

That autumn, and into the following winter, he was routinely burning a third of the hives in each apiary as they came down with AFB. Eventually all the hives and equipment ended up in the firepit.

“It was very demoralising, very hard. And also, very hard to tell your wife that the money we borrowed against the house was going up in smoke,” Crowley says.

However, a pragmatic approach, which would come to hallmark Crowley’s time in apiculture, led he and wife Heather to reach for the cheque book again and get back into bees.

“I knew I had a good business, with the honey sites and the pollination contracts. So, it was just a case of having to work our way through it. We got rid of the dross and ended up buying some more hives with extra pollination and honey sites and carried on.”

‘I'll Never Bloody Touch Bees Again’…

That resiliency would result in many more years at the helm of Bay Bees, which fluctuated in hive numbers, going as high as 1200 at one point, before selling “a couple of hundred” and equipment to Katikati couple Campbell and Louise Langley this year to wind up the business. However, Crowley’s first foray with bees gave no hint of a decades-long career to come.

It was 1982 and Crowley was living in Paengaroa, BOP, the home of Comvita which, at the time, was but a “tiny little alternative health company”.

“Rob Walker was their beekeeper and one night he said ‘come and help me shift some hives’. I had no gear, he had no gear, and he said ‘It’ll be alright, we will just smoke them, be quick, unload them and off we go.’ Well, I wasn't alright! I got stung up to bits and I thought ‘I'll never bloody touch bees again’,” Crowley says.


More than a decade of travelling and working followed, but, back living in the BOP and working as a builder, a beekeeper friend once again came calling.

Kiwifruit pollination was an essential part of Dennis Crowley’s business for over two decades, which included having to work through the Psa crisis in kiwifruit.

“After work one night I helped him shift 1000 hives into pollination. I quite enjoyed it, because this time I had gloves and a bee-suit. That was November, then the following spring, he asked me if I'd like to come work for him. I wasn't really enjoying building, so I thought, ‘yeah, why not?’”

Clearly taken by bees that spring, by December the Crowleys had made their first hive purchases of their own, and they were off.

Pollination

Well before the mānuka honey boom, kiwifruit and avocado pollination was the reliable earner for many BOP beekeepers each spring. It was no different for Bay Bees and Crowley says he saw the second generation of families take over some orchards, having held their pollination contracts for the length of his business.

Early on he could see the value in putting more structure around the beekeeper-grower relationship and so Crowley was a supporter of the short-lived Kiwifruit Pollination Association (KPA) which saw pollination hives audited to ensure their suitability.

“The idea was to keep providing decent service to the orchardists and you could charge more than the non-members. That didn't last long though,” he says.

As more and more orchards were planted, beekeepers wanting more and more of the work undercut the pricing of the Association members and it fell by the wayside as support from growers waned too. When the Gold kiwifruit variety came to the Bay it was an opportunity for beekeepers to get better value for their services, as its earlier flowering meant hives could be used in Gold orchards, then Green.

“My thinking was, as an industry, we should be charging twice as much because the Gold was producing twice as much fruit and growers were getting paid twice as much per tray for the fruit. You also have to work harder to get the hives up to strength a month earlier, to meet the same target. I couldn't understand why beekeepers were undercutting everyone else and we certainly never dropped our prices,” Crowley says.


When Pseudomonas syringae pv. Actinidiae (Psa) established itself in New Zealand in 2010 it was an anxious time for the kiwifruit industry, and thus for many beekeepers in BOP. Zespri were worried about beehives assisting in the spread of the bacterial disease of kiwifruit plants, and so initially they wanted to prevent placement of hives in orchards. However, Crowley says they had developed a good working relationship with Zespri through the KPA and so he and Neil Cameron, a former member of the Association who was then working for Zespri, were able to talk the growers around.

“Everyone panicked and wanted to shut their orchards up, but we were pretty sure we could still do it and bees wouldn’t spread Psa. We told them, ‘at the end of the day, it’s not going to affect us beekeepers greatly. We will just leave our hives on honey and get paid for honey anyway, but the orchardists won’t get very much income if they don’t get their plants pollinated.’”

So, over a busy week, beekeepers and Zespri determined what was safe to pollinate and when and what movement restrictions would need to be in place to slow Psa’s spread. They got through that pollination season but then, a year later, tensions were high again when growers began to use the spray streptomycin without warning beekeepers.

“We didn’t know what issue that was going to have on honey sales. You imagine streptomycin showing up in mānuka honey. We told Zespri, ‘you can’t just do that without letting us know’. So, I pulled together a meeting between growers, beekeepers and top scientists in the Paengaroa hall and didn’t let media in. We needed to be able to speak freely.”

The outcome was trials were run on beehives in orchards sprayed with streptomycin to determine its impact on hives, and rigorous restrictions were put in place around its use and ultimately, “we worked it out” Crowley says.

Getting Clued Up on Varroa

By the time varroa came to New Zealand in 2000 Crowley had four seasons beekeeping under his belt, but was still learning plenty and he knew there was a lot to learn about the newly-arrived parasite

“When we first heard it was in New Zealand, I didn't know what it was, or how bad it was, but the older beekeepers around me were concerned and I knew them well enough, respected them enough, to know that, if they're worried, I should be worried,” Crowley says.

The alarms got louder when a beekeeper of European origins, and so with experience of varroa, alerted authorities to the mite’s presence in his East Cape hive. It wasn’t the presence of the mite just down the road which concerned Crowley though, rather that it turned out to be a false alarm and a pollen mite.

“I thought, if this guy had seen it before and he can't tell if it's in his hive or not, I don't have a show,” Crowley says.

Therefore, he volunteered himself to help the Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) with delimiting surveys around Auckland.

“So, I got to see what varroa was and got to talk with the MAF guys and really respected what they were doing, and how, for our industry. That's the thing people forget. People jump up and down about them but, actually, they were doing it for us and paying for it all. The industry wasn't paying anything. So, I had a lot of respect for them for doing that. Now, they're not always good angels, but that was good.”

Once varroa had made its way to ‘the Bay’, new challenges lay ahead, but there were silver linings as it improved communication between beekeepers greatly, from a well subscribed email chain, to physical get togethers, all which made for better beekeeping.

Bay Bees hives under a slow-release sugar syrup bucket feeding system for hives while in orchards.

“I remember we set up a field day here in the Bay of Plenty, not long after varroa came, and we had people come from all over the country to have a look at it and discuss. It was fantastic. Those were good days,” Crowley reflects.

Over the past two-decades-plus of dealing with varroa there have been good years and bad, but about 10 years in stories of beekeepers who were not practicing integrated pest management plans by alternating miticide treatments were leaking out.

“By that time, the mānuka was really starting to take off and we were seeing a lot more hives and in places that didn't previously have hives, and more congregating together.”

The hive intensity, along with the mixture of varroa management plans and timeframes, have exasperated the problems the parasite brings. Now, with increased virus loadings in the hives, managing varroa is much more onerous.

“When we first started with varroa you could crack the box and, if you saw mites between the two boxes, you should get a treatment in soon. Now? If you see that, you're too late and the hive is on its way out. You have to use a mix of organic, non-organic chemicals, but the main thing is, you need to be looking in your hive regularly to see what is in there.”

Honey Ups and Downs

Anyone who has been beekeeping in New Zealand since the 1990s has been on a roller-coaster ride of honey prices and Bay Bees “did very well for a while there” Crowley says.

“I remember my first bit of honey, I think I got $2.40 for it. Admittedly costs were down then and I thought that was good. Then someone offered me $3.10 and I was over the moon. Then we got involved with the mānuka. The first season, the revenue from the mānuka honey was almost the same as what I had just paid for my house.”


Things have changed now, since the introduction of a standard for the export of mānuka honey in 2018. Those new rules, whether beekeepers like them or not, were much-needed Crowley points out.

Like many established beekeeping businesses, Bay Bees did very well in the 2000s when mānuka honey prices soared. In this photo from the archives, 12 hives take to the air to be helicoptered into mānuka sites.

“One year I got $17 for pasture honey. There was no way on God’s earth there was a pasture honey market out there for $17 to the beekeeper. We all knew what was happening. It was going to be blended up and sold off as mānuka and, for a short period there, every man and his dog was doing it.”

When the fall in honey prices came in 2018, Crowley says they took a pragmatic approach at Bay Bees and reshaped the business to suit the new environment, regardless of the mānuka standard’s accuracy.

“I tend to err on the side of ‘okay, if I can work with that, then what do I need to do as a beekeeper to produce a product that will fit with that system?’ That is how I’ve looked at my businesses: how can I make money out of it? Not in the sense of being greedy, but in the sense of, I've got a business, it's got to pay its way. For me pollination is a no-brainer, because I'm right smack bang in the middle of the pollination area. That's part of it. Then, what honeys do I need to get that are selling and what quality of honey do I have to produce to, hopefully, get a buyer?”

Industry Representation

Given the BOP beekeeper’s experiences with beekeeping adversity and the pragmatism in which he responds, along with his ability to bring various stakeholders together constructively, it is perhaps not surprising that Crowley has spent considerable time on the Board of the National Beekeepers Association (2012-15) and then from 2016 to present with Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ). Crowley has thus represented commercial beekeepers on the ApiNZ board since its inception and is currently serving as the ApiNZ representative on the AFB Pest Management Plan Board. He firmly believes beekeepers, honey packers and marketers working together as a representative body is what is required.

“Beekeepers and packers are two sides of the same coin and we actually need each other. The industry, in total, is from flower to supermarket shelf. As a beekeeper that's where we get paid, we get paid from people buying honey for the family, not from the packers.”

The one-time dairy farmer points to other primary industries, such as dairy or kiwifruit, as having the blueprint for success when it comes to industry representation, where a fully industry representative body sits above other groups.

“You can have individual beekeeping groups that just want to focus on the beekeeping, and also packing groups that just want to focus on the art of packing but, individually, they are dead-end groups. They need each other. ApiNZ is more industry wide.

“As an industry with only about 1000 commercial beekeepers, we are too small to have 10 different little beekeeping groups all wanting their say, or wanting money, or wanting to go talk to the government, all wanting their own little flag on the hill. The government don’t want to talk to 20 different little groups, they want to talk to one body that represents the groups. That's the place for ApiNZ.

“A house divided by itself will not stand and so, at the moment, the bee industry is not standing because it's too divided,” Crowley believes.


Bay Bees hives destined to be flown into mānuka honey sites.

Win Like Wine

It is the wine industry that could provide the best model for the honey industry to replicate, with the retiring beekeeper envious of how viticulture has banded together to promote New Zealand wines internationally. The big honey packers cannot be relied upon to force open doors to new honey markets, because they are not going to divert their attention away from putting mānuka honey in pots when it is worth so much more than other varieties, he believes.

“They have their own direction, their own targets that they're hitting, so they are not going to do it for a wider New Zealand industry. They've got their people talking to them, and they're going to work their people. So, we need a top body, like the wine industry does, to promote New Zealand honey overseas. It will always start with mānuka, because it is what gets New Zealand honey noticed overseas. So, let’s use that, then go in with other honeys.”

Beekeepers voted down ApiNZ’s proposal to collect a honey levy in 2019, but the industry needs to consider funding some sort of collective action to take an advocacy role for New Zealand honey, the board member maintains.

“It's not just paying this guy that used to sell cars and getting him to go around the world. It's got to be wider focusing and smarter than that. It costs a lot of money and it takes time. It's not going to happen overnight.”

If it doesn’t happen, and strong industry representation isn’t funded, Crowley warns that many beekeepers will be left behind.

“Whether we like it or not, there has to be a levy of some sort, somehow, somewhere, if we want to grow. The producers have to be involved in that. Otherwise, we will just carry on as we are and the guys with deep pockets will continue to roll forward regardless. The bigger boys will become the de facto industry, just because they can ring up the Minister if they want to and have a visit with him, or hop on the plane with the Prime Minister to go on a trade envoy. So, if we're not careful, that's what will happen and the de facto industry will end up being five big players.”


Time for the Next Steps

The warning comes as Crowley looks to step away from his ApiNZ Board position at next year’s AGM, having already left behind all but two beehives, located in the backyard of his Tauranga home. Despite his exit, the business of beekeeping was thoroughly enjoyable right to the end for him.

“As far as working the bees, I still love that. Ninety percent of the stuff that I was doing I enjoyed every moment of it. I enjoyed the lifestyle and I enjoyed not having to be told when I have to turn up, when I can have a cup of coffee or not.”

Not having hundreds of hives to tend to has now afforded him the time to take a month-long early-spring holiday to Cairns, Australia, to visit one of his three children. So, while his calendar might be opening up a bit more in spring time, there has always been a freedom from ‘time’, Crowley says.

“When I started beekeeping – and typically we didn't have cell phones back then – I took my watch off, because I wasn't set to eight to five. I was set to whatever the bees were doing,” he explains, adding, “I loved that part of it the whole time.”


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