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  • Writer's pictureMaggie James

The Scientist Opening Doors to Beekeeping Diversity

To survive the current honey industry downturn many beekeepers are turning to diversification of services and products. The doors to some of those income streams have been eased open with research conducted decades ago, as Maggie James finds out when she discusses the comprehensive career of beekeeping-scientist Ronald van Toor, who helped pave the way for New Zealand’s multimillion-dollar live honey bee export industry.

By Maggie James

Ronald van Toor has packed plenty into both his working career and recreational pursuits, including contributions to live bee exports and royal jelly production within the beekeeping industry. While science was there from the start of his career, bees came a bit later.

Esteemed beekeeping scientist Ronald van Toor still keeps his hand in with some backyard beehives in Canterbury, decades on from first cracking a hive lid in the 1980s and a range of research projects which have benefited the New Zealand apiculture industry.

“In the early ‘70s I left school and began working as a lab technician at Alliance Freezing Company, in Lorneville near Invercargill,” van Toor picks up his story.

“I finished at the works as water treatment plant manager, having obtained a hands-on Certificate of Science through the New Zealand Institute of Technology, the esteem of a Bachelor of Science in today’s world.”

It wasn’t all work and no play though. Van Toor was a kayaker of some skill in his younger years and, along with a couple of Southland kayaking mates, paddled as part of the 1974 Commonwealth Games slalom kayaking selection trials on the Rakaia River. Whilst the trio didn’t make the team as individuals, they all achieved mid-field results.

“A one-year stint followed on the 10,000-acre Lands and Surveys, Dale Farm Settlement Block at Te Anau, being one of the best times of my life,” van Toor continues.

“I married as a teenager, and with two young boys we came onto the Settlement. We often dingy sailed Lake Te Anau. I learnt to hunt, ride horses, shear, kill and process sheep and beef, including farm husbandry skills and livestock management, and driving farm machinery.”

After that informative year, an eight-year stint as a technical officer for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) based in Gore followed, beginning with a major weather phenomena and extreme kayaking, van Toor explains.

“We shifted to Gore to a 10-acre block with a homestead we intended to do up. One side bordered the airport, the other the Mataura River flowing between the freezing works and paper mill. A month following the property purchase, the river flooded through the house.

“This created a phenomenal one-off opportunity! I was the first person to kayak the manmade weir and the natural grade five Mataura Falls in full flood. I was petrified and knew if I couldn’t get over the weir I would drown in its base. Immediately down river is the six metre Falls drop, but I believed I had the skills to survive!”

Even nowadays NIWA still list the 1978 Southland/West Otago weather event as an extreme 100-year event. There was an area loss of 850 beehives, 1250 hectares of crop and 340kms of fencing. It was an extreme start to life in Gore, which soon saw the van Toors settle down and beekeeping first enter the fold.

“Later I obtained my pilot’s fixed wing licence. We had sheep and cows, and a horse for the kids. I learnt karate and trained sheep dogs. Also, my uncle Herman van Puffelen, who immigrated to New Zealand in the 1950s and became a commercial beekeeper and keen photographer at Waitahuna, Central Otago, delivered three hives to me at Gore. He told me I was now a beekeeper and inspired me into bee research.

“Andrew Matheson, author Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand, was also at times available in the area for advice. Later, my uncle supplied photographs for Andrew’s publications.”

The Te Anau and Gore stints were to shape van Toor’s career, constantly building on the skills and philosophies learnt at this time. He became interested in anything to do with the outdoors, leading to a professional career in crop protection and efficient management of honey bees. It was following a MAF Tech period in the mid-1980s that his career researching honey bees really took off.

“We went up to Invermay Ag Research, and for nine years I was a technical officer, researching integrated control of major pasture weeds and insect pests, and pollination of crops with honey bees and specialisation of integrated pest management of bee hives,” van Toor explains.

Live Bee Exports to Canada

In 1989 the National Beekeepers’ Association of NZ (NBA) contracted van Toor for just over one year to evaluate the parasitic status of the endemic pollen mite present in New Zealand beehives. Using bees from two commercial outfits in Otago and Canterbury, research revealed the mite contained pollen and bee-derived salivary antigens. The outcome proved the mite is not parasitic on bees, but rather is a scavenger of pollen within bee colonies. The findings helped open the door for a new export earner for Kiwi beekeepers as it contributed to the lifting of trade embargoes on live honey bees exported to Canada and Korea.

The main market would be Canada, where there is demand for producing colonies for almond pollination in California. The live bee exporting season is generally late February to May in New Zealand.

Gradually live bee exports increased and in 2014 37,704 packages were exported. Coinciding with the mānuka boom, exports of live honey bees dramatically declined yearly to 9,804 packages in 2020. However, 2021 and 2022 have seen package bee numbers significantly rise with 18,333 packages in 2022 according to Ministry for Primary Industries data.

Royal Jelly Pioneer

Van Toor also kept busy with a Masters in Science, Crop Protection, through Bath University in 1990, with surfactant technology to improve herbicide surfactant uptake in weeds the subject.

Spot the mad-keen kayaker. Ronald van Toor tackles the Mataura River in full flood 1978, becoming the first person to kayak the manmade weir and the natural grade five Mataura Falls – a “petrifying” experience.

Then came another of van Toor’s major contributions to the apiculture industry when he developed techniques for production of fresh royal jelly from beehives. A book on the subject from his pen, Producing Royal Jelly: A Guide for The Commercial and Hobbyist Beekeeper, was published in 1997, 2006 and 2013.

It provides an easy to read, fully illustrated guide providing all available practical information on the production of royal jelly, covering in step-by-step detail the production, storage, and sale of the product.

“In the early ‘90s I worked on a research project with Ben and Dot Rawnsley, Happy Valley Honey, Auckland region, at their property to produce quantities of royal jelly, and helped developed royal jelly production systems for use in hives,” van Toor looks back.

The Rawnsleys sent a consignment of royal jelly to Europe as a result of the research, at a time when production of the highly valued ‘organic’ royal jelly was possible in New Zealand, and before the incursion of varroa mite forced the use of miticides in hives. These days, Happy Valley Honey continue to produce and market New Zealand royal jelly fresh in 10ml vials, and as an ingredient in a range of products including honey, chewable tablets, soaps, and their skin care range.

Slipping into New Shoes

After transferring to AgResearch’s Lincoln lab in Canterbury, van Toor would eventually leave the institute which he had dedicated so much knowledge to in 1996, comfortably slipping into a new career.

“I left AgResearch and bought into an established company as managing director of sheepskin footwear with five other directors, 40 staff, a tannery in Dunedin and a sheep skin manufacturing plant in Christchurch. We were the largest producer of sheepskin footwear for New Zealand – 15,000 pairs domestically including The Warehouse contract, plus 15,000 pairs exported to Japan and the US.

“Unfortunately in 1998, following free trade agreements, The Warehouse opted to purchase overseas product much more cheaply than our natural product and we lost their contract. The US dollar was high, and many New Zealand tanneries were closing. We elected to put the company into receivership.”

Back to the Books

From there it was back to agrichemicals, working for Bayer based in Christchurch as a field researcher, testing their agrichemicals for registration in commercial crops. However, just over a year later, more fulltime study at Lincoln University beckoned, undertaking a PhD in development of a biocontrol of an exotic fungus causing camellia flower blight.

The knowledge gained from that study and research has provided an understanding of novel control for other economic pests in New Zealand, van Toor says.

“Since 2002 I have held the position of Scientist – Crop Protection at NZ Crop and Food Research based at Lincoln, managing insect pest problems in crops, along with pesticide use and resistance.”

This position has included a multiyear stint in Scotland, 2008 to 2010, as senior scientist at Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee on a Marie Curie Fellowship to study management of virus transmission by insecticide-resistant aphids in potato seed crops.

Now 50 years on from that first job as a lab technician at the freezing works, with daredevil kayaking on the weekends, a career of scientific achievement continues. It is now pest insects which occupy much of his working time and not so much honey bees. However, beekeepers up and down New Zealand are still benefitting from previous work though, proving that appropriate investment in scientific research can pay dividends.

Next month we will look at van Toor’s work regarding ingestion of Varroa destructor by pseudoscorpions in honey bee hives, and his various industry viewpoints.

If you wish to discuss any aspect of this story with Ron van Toor, email Ronald.vanToor@plantandfood.co.nz


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