1 Mar 2019

Love in the air for Italian bees near Ōtaki

From Checkpoint, 5:53 pm on 1 March 2019

Love of a different kind is buzzing in the air on a rural property near Ōtaki, north of Wellington. 

RNZ visual journalist Rebekah Parsons-King and reporter Jonathan Mitchell take a look into the story:

Gary Milne and Penny Kerr-Hislop left the rat-race a few years ago and decided to set up life in the country.

Inside a small office-turned-science-lab on their lifestyle block, in a small covered hatch, male drone bees fly around. 

It is where bees are picked up and semen is extracted.

The queen is knocked out with CO2 and inseminated with the drone sperm - all in few minutes of delicate work.  

The queen then goes back into her small holder and into an incubator for rest. 

It takes more than a week before the success of the insemination can be determined. 

"At the moment in terms of attrition from insemination, it is about 99 percent ... I have lost one queen I think in the last three months ... I'm getting really good at it," Ms Kerr-Hislop said. 

They said it was important to produce them in a lab instead of letting nature take its course.

"There's choosing the colour - you can make your bees look more Italian ... and we specialise in Italian, so we like to choose a nice yellow - golden coloured drone to inseminate with," she said. 

Bee insemination at Southern Sun Queen Bees

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

However, there's been a lot of trial and error.

"A friend in the [United] States has called me the 'inseminatrix' because of what I do - inseminate queens. It's a lot of tears and sweat and tantrums - it's like anything you do ... it's often much tougher than you think," she said.

Ms Kerr-Hislop went to Britain and the United States to learn the process.

"Every time the queen sort of flinched, I would flinch and I would say 'I'm so sorry - I hope I didn't hurt you'. I now see it more objectively as it is something that I need to do. I need to do it properly; I need to make sure she does survive; I need to make sure that she doesn't get hurt," she said.

And for Mr Milne, it's about the lifestyle.

"We keep bees because we love doing it - apart from the occasional sting - bees don't really argue with you, or lose their temper with you, or tell you what to do," he said.

Gary Milne and Penny Kerr-Hislop from Southern Sun Queen Bees.

Gary Milne and Penny Kerr-Hislop  Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Mr Milne said the queen bee would typically lay for two years. 

"She'll be the head of a hive with 20,000 or 50,000 bees. In the height of the season, she will lay 2000 to 3000 eggs a day - day in, day out."

Now that they've had a successful run of producing their own Italian queen bees in the lab - their next step is to go commercial and sell them to other beekeepers - here and overseas.

"We're not selling them yet - we have a large number sitting in hives at the moment and we are going to carry them through the winter," Mr Milne said. 

"You get grumpy hives and you get happy hives and we don't want to have grumpy bees. We don't want to sell queens that may have grumpy offspring," Penny said.  

Ms Kerr-Hislop - who's a trained teacher - wants to put those skills and knowledge she's gained to teach others the process in the years to come.