Bee colony deaths in New Zealand have increased for the sixth year in a row with nearly 100,000 colonies estimated to be lost.
The Ministry for Primary Industries has commissioned Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research to conduct a colony loss survey annually since 2015, to help it monitor losses over time and understand what is driving them.
About 30 percent of New Zealand's registered beekeepers completed the 2020 Colony Loss Survey. A report released this week on the results showed the overall loss rate for winter 2020 was 11.3 percent - approximately 99,150 colonies - an 8.5 percent increase on 2019.
The most commonly reported reasons for a colony death was problems with queen bees (33.1 percent), suspected varroa mite and related complications (31 percent), followed by suspected starvation (7.6 percent) and wasps (6.6 percent).
Barry Foster from Apiculture New Zealand said that while some overwintering losses were a normal part of beekeeping, he was concerned by the increasing loss rate.
"While this is lower than loss rates experienced overseas, it shows that we cannot be complacent when it comes to bee health."
Foster said there had been promising advances in varroa management and in the use of biocontrols to deal with wasps. However, dealing with queen problems was more complex and the subject of research both within New Zealand and internationally.
"Ongoing research is a vital part of reducing colony loss, but also beekeepers know that their everyday management of these threats is key to hive health. The survey is a really valuable tool in measuring how we are doing, and where more efforts are needed," he said.
Director of the New Zealand Colony Loss Survey, Manaaki Whenua principal economist Pike Stahlmann-Brown, said while colony losses in New Zealand were trending upwards, they still remained low by international standards.
"So there's a good news - bad news story there," Pike Stahlmann-Brown said.
As with previous years, average loss rates were significantly higher for non-commercial beekeepers. Small hobbyists lost 27.9 percent of their colonies over winter 2020, on average, compared to 10.4 percent for the largest commercial operators.
Figures from MPI show about 8000 of the 9200 beekeeping enterprises registered in New Zealand had 50 hives or less and were considered hobby beekeepers.
Pike Stahlmann-Brown said the survey showed small beekeeping operations were more likely to get information from YouTube and beekeeping clubs. In contrast, bee scientists and scientific publications became increasingly important as operation size increased.
"It's certainly the case that hobbyist beekeepers have less experience on average than commercial beekepeers, it's also true to say though that commercial beekeepers are maybe differently motivated, they have a commercial motivation to keep their hives in top order."
Asked to reflect on honey and pollination prices in 2019/20 season, respondents considered the economics to be poor-to-moderate.