31 May 2024

A sour taste for beekeepers

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 31 May 2024

Beekeepers are crumbling under the weight of diseased hives, depressed honey prices and a lack of industry investment in marketing and research

Beekeeping concept, beekeeper looks after bees, the bees checks, checks honey, beekeeper exploring honeycomb, smoking bees

Photo: 123RF

Beekeepers and apiculture experts are pressing for the return of a marketing and research levy to help the languishing industry.

The recently released 2023 New Zealand Colony Loss Survey, by Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, has found beekeepers have the lowest well-being scores of any primary industry role.

This comes as the impact of American Foulbrood hits the headlines, and a North Canterbury beekeeper says he was forced to destroy more than 10,000 beehives.

Pike Stahlmann-Brown, Manaaki Whenua's principal scientist for economics, leads the survey. It's been run every year for the last nine years. In 2023, it asked about well-being for the first time.

"Manaaki Whenua also runs surveys of farmers and foresters and growers and so we were able to compare beekeepers to others in [the] primary industry," Stahlmann-Brown says.

Springbank Honey hives destroyed - due to American Foulbrood . Beekeeper Steven Brown

 Honey producer Springbank Honey of North Canterbury was ordered to burn more than 10,000 of its beehives and beekeeping equipment. Photo: Facebook / Steven Brown

"We found that beekeepers, at least commercial beekeepers, had lower average responses than dairy farmers or sheep-and-beef farmers, arable farmers, horticulturists or forestry people. So, I think it's pretty serious at the moment."

Industry stalwart Barry Foster, a semi-retired Gisborne-based beekeeper, says there are several reasons why well-being might be low.

"[The survey] was taken mid last August or thereabouts, we'd just come out of those cyclones - some beekeepers had lost quite heavily," he tells The Detail.

"Not only that there'd been a market downturn in the sale of honey - both mānuka honey and other honeys. So, the financial pressure was coming on beekeepers."

He says the industry's "languished" and is advocating for a return of a levy which helped it fund research being done on mānuka honey.

"One of the things that launched mānuka honey - and I'm talking back in the late 1990s-early 2000s - was our industry had a commodity levy, and it helped to pay for marketing and research. Some of the money did actually go in to helping with the research at Waikato University into mānuka honey and it definitely helped with the launch of mānuka honey on to the world stage.

"Commodity levies have a lifetime of about six years and then they come up for renewal - there is usually a vote to continue or not - and ours came up around about 2003 and the industry turned it down. So it was lost and since then, we've not had any substantial ways of funding research, let alone marketing.

"We've really done it to ourselves by not continuing to invest in our future."

Stahlmann-Brown notes that "in almost all other primary industries, and as far as I know, wool is the only exception, levies support activities like research and technical support".

He believes there also needs to be more mental health support.

"One of the problems that we have with beekeeping is that it's generally a solitary exercise. I think that reaching out to others in the industry, maybe others who can support them, I think would be a great place to start... you've got to look after yourself before you can look after your bees." 

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