To Fiji with Advice
In May, Southern North Island Beekeeping Group (SNIBG) member Allan Richards ventured to Fiji on request of the Fiji Beekeepers Association, to teach a two-day queen breeding workshop. While there he became concerned about the way the local beekeepers were being kept uninformed or misinformed about how to deal with the varroa incursion and also the American foulbrood (AFB) education and training being provided. Spurred into action to assist, four SNIBG members embarked on a week-long education mission to Fiji in November. Frank Lindsay reports on what they found, both inside the apiaries and out.
By Frank Lindsay
In 2018 Varroa jacobsoni was identified in Fiji, a different and somewhat less aggressive strain of the parasitic mite to Varroa destructor found in New Zealand, but one that still needs careful management. However, during his initial visit in May, Allan picked up a disconnect between the two government organisations, Fiji Biosecurity and Fiji Ministry of Agriculture, which limited coordination with beekeepers.
That disconnect also lead to erroneous advice that varroa jacobsoni was benign and wasn't causing problems, while we had also heard that they had an AFB problem. Thus, we planned a trip to both teach about AFB and varroa management, while trialling the products we have registered in New Zealand under Fijian conditions.
It wasn’t all varroa and AFB though, a range of topics were taught. As part of an aid programme, Australian queen bees are being imported into quarantine (on an outer Island). The F1 (first generation) hybrids are being distributed to beekeepers, so we included some information on how to safely requeen hives and anything else where there was a knowledge gap.
The Wet-Dry Window
Fiji’s beekeeping calendar works around the wet and dry seasons and the best time for us to visit was deemed to be at the end of the dry season and just before the start of the wet. With rain set for December through April, most nectar gathering is during the dry, and is heightened following any rain which stimulates renewed flowering. With honey harvest and extraction set to be completed in November, it didn’t give us much of a window before the rainy season to make our visit and thus we planned for four SNIBG members to visit for a week, 13-20 November.
Through the generosity of Reuben Stanley (Bee Green) and Gary Sinkinson, John Burnet, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and other beekeepers, we took over a box of Apilife Var, and a selection of Formic Pro, Bayvarol, Apistan, Apivar, enough oxalic acid and glycerine to make 150 cardboard staples, fourteen second edition varroa manuals and 50 MPI pathogen reference booklets.
The Fijian beekeepers were using sugar shake jars with dishwashing liquid to do mite washes. This type of jar was not designed for this, so we took eight Sistema 700ml strainer containers purchased from Mitre 10's all over Wellington – on sale at half the normal price! Four bee suits and gloves were purchased on TradeMe for $40 each, knowing we couldn't bring any bee gear home. Travel to Fiji, insurance and incidentals were paid from by the SNIBG Education Trust.
At the airport, Fiji Customs inspected the varroa treatment that Allan Richards and Trevor Gillbanks were carrying, but we went through thanks to Oliver Quinn from MPI who was immediately behind us in the queue. Recognising Oliver, the Customs lady asked, "Are you with Oliver?", "Sort of" was our reply and she waved Gary and I through.
Life on the Road
Arriving in the afternoon, we settled into the Tonoa Holiday Resort and split up the gear. Allan and Trevor were to travel around the big Island, Viti Levu and Gary and I were to fly to Vanua Levu, travel around the Island and then catch the ferry on to Taveuni, stay overnight and the next day (Saturday) fly back to Nadi, catching the 7.30am Sunday flight back to New Zealand.
It meant we were on the move every day, running training sessions for trainers, inspecting hives, mite washing and putting in different treatments to see how they worked. Gary has been playing with varroa treatments for seven years and monitoring how the bees reacted in the hives to each treatment, including observing their reactions using a camera. So, he made recommendation on how much to use of each product to get a good varroa knockdown.
In the evenings we were hosted by the beekeepers, who were mainly teachers of Indian descent, and then on to the next appointment, transported by our hosts. Teachers finish every day at 3.00pm and have their weekends free, so have ample time to attend to beehives. Their honey doesn't granulate and is mostly sold in half litre bottles. They get $13 dollars a litre with some beekeepers turning over $50,000 a year. However, like us with Covid and no tourists, some had a lot of unsold honey.
We saw the real Fiji. Metal roads with potholes. Under their conditions, vehicles only last seven years before shocks and suspension are worn out, so we only saw modern cars and utes. Drivers use both sides of the road to avoid the worst of the potholes, which can be a little disconcerting. Some overtake on double white lines. "We can if we think we can pass", was the explanation.
Sugar cane harvesting was in progress, so six ton trucks (carrying 12 tons with the load extending a metre out from either side of the vehicle) used the middle of the road. Veer to the side and they were likely to tip over.
The Fijians were lovely, happy, house-proud people. They fed us well. Mostly curried fish and chicken with rice and other dishes and sauces, plus sweet chocolate flavoured tea. Freshly picked bananas, watermelon and sweet juicy pineapples filled out the menus. Gary's favourite was deep fried fish! It was cool showers (tank water) outside the main cities, where there wasn't electricity. We mostly slept on a squab on the floor, sometimes with a mosquito net.
Where we had an internet connection, we live-streamed our inspections back to our SNIBG's Facebook site.
So, What Did We Find?
Our first introduction was of the dark mellifera bees. Walk past them once and a few bees would fly. Walk back and they were all over you. On went the veil and then, after about 20 stings in the hands within a minute during our first hive inspection, on went the gloves. Allan and Trevor took over 50 stings between them before doing a runner. They were chased for a kilometre before they could get back in the car. The bees ran off the frames and we hardly ever saw a queen.
A lot of villages had been given 20 hives, a day’s training in a classroom, and then just left to it. We observed how they worked their hives and then provided more instruction; e.g. when inspecting, start from the bottom super. We left a varroa book with each of the trainers.
Rectified spirits were no longer available, but we were given a 500ml bottle at the Muslim School in Labasa thanks to our host for that day Mohammed Sameer. That meant we could do a comparison with their sugar shake containers with dish washing liquid and our containers using rectified spirits.
Using their sugar shake containers with dishwashing liquid, gave a comparable number of mites to the alcohol wash, but you had to wash the bees three or more times to get out all the mites as they had to pass through the bees on to a cloth.
We also found on the first alcohol wash we attempted that those mites riding on the bees fell off immediately, but we still had mites falling after five minutes in the alcohol. Jacobsoni, being slightly smaller than the varroa destructor we are used to in New Zealand, perhaps took longer to dislodge from under the plates. After seeing what we were using, the beekeepers were going to throw away their sugar shake containers and will try to get Sistema jars as these were much easier and quicker to use.
We carried out careful brood inspections but did not find any AFB. Some were confusing the late stages of Parasitic Mite Syndrome (PMS), brown gluggy larva under capped cells, as AFB.
First impressions were that varroa didn't look bad as we were only seeing one or two infested drone brood pupa between the frames. Hives had good numbers of bees with plenty of honey, however, varroa was in all hives. Allan and Trevor found the most, with up to 200 mites in a 300 bee wash. In the end they were just estimating the number of mites as under 50, over 50, 100+, 150+.
Being on the outer Islands, we found less mites in the washes the further away from the main Island we went; averages of 15-20% on Vanua Levu and 10% on Taveuni in the apiaries we inspected. In Vanua Levu, the mites were affecting hives. We saw signs of PMS in most hives and one drone with Deformed Wing Virus. Allan also reported seeing DWV in a hive.
Two of the seven beekeepers we visited on Vanua Levu had lost 50% of their hives in the last six months and weren't sure why, yet they had had a marvellous honey crop. Some could be associated to more rain during their normal dry season (thanks to the La Nina weather patterns, the vegetation was green where normally it would have been brown) and that perhaps their bees were robbing dying feral colonies.
The honey produced was lovely and fruity.
Treatments Used and Their Impacts
After traveling around most of the coast of Vanua Levu, two days after treating Chuck's (Jack McKay) apiary, we were back again to do a quick inspection of the hives. We were a little shocked in one hive we checked as the bee population had gone from a full box of bees down to three frames. Those bees bitten by varroa had disappeared and this was with Bayvarol, our mildest treatment.
Allan's trial of Oxalic staples showed 2000 mites on a sticky board after 24 hours, so this treatment was working.
The beekeepers whose hives we inspected, were left with an assortment of treatments and were to record their mite wash numbers after two weeks and then a month later.
As to the cost of treatment. Currently the Fiji Beekeepers Association was selling packets of Apistan for $20. They were being subsidised by a generous grant from the New Zealand Embassy. We thought that ApiVar Life was the next cheapest as we were only using 1/3 to a half a wafer in each hive.
Formic Pro was the next cheapest with 1/3 to 1/2 strip. Again, it will depend on results and that they may need to put in a follow-up treatment to control re-invading mites.
The other strips were far too costly for the Fijian beekeepers although very effective.
As to the importing of queen bees, we didn't think this was wise as both the Fijians and the Australians hadn't tested their bee populations for pathogens, so they may be importing more virulent viruses with these queens.
On Taveuni we found yellow Italian cross, calm bees, initially imported by Gavin McKenzie from New Zealand 25 years ago. There were only 200 hives on the Island, so we believed once the feral population had been eliminated it would be possible over two seasons, with careful management, to eliminate varroa from the Island.
We recommend to the beekeepers that they do not import Australian queens on to Taveuni until a pathogen programme had been conducted and that in the mean-time they breed from the yellow Italian bees.
We also noticed that some beekeeper’s suits were dirty and with the amount of stings there were receiving, recommended that they wash them after use as dirty suits could lead to children becoming allergic. I explained the situation with my son breathing in the venom who now cannot touch anything related to bees without getting a reaction.
And in conclusion … I would like to thank all those involved for their hospitality in giving us a once-in-a-lifetime experience of the real Fiji.
Two days home and I'm still scratching at the numerous mosquito bites I received after forgetting to use the repellent spray, and I'm on a no food diet until my stomach settles after drinking the local water the day before we left!