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Zen, and the Art of Bee-keeping!

Do you remember when bee-keeping activities were generally confined to amateurs operating out of sheds at the bottom of the garden with hives scattered about the neighbourhood?

Practitioners of these dark arts were often individualists well known for favouring solitary activity, and discouraging social interaction by surrounding themselves with an aura of smoke generated from old rags in a tin can with an attached puffer. This was used  to keep the more aggressive of their charges at bay while removing the fruits of their labour. Honey was sold at the back door, often along with eggs.

Comparing that situation with modern day bee-keeping is like ‘chalk from cheese.’ Check out the trucks now roaming the countryside with cranes and smartly dressed and netted crews moving their hives in and out of giant sterile processing facilities.

Marianne Peso describes modern methods succinctly in a 11 January 2016 article in ‘Sci-Blog’

This is an extract:

“It took until the 1800s for the beekeeper Lorenzo Langstroth to invent a bee hive that allowed for easy hive manipulation and removal of honey – which is the same bee hive model we use today.

The basic Langstroth hive consists of 8 to 10 (usually wooden) frames each surrounding a sheet of beeswax foundation provided by the beekeeper. The worker bees, using the wax from their own bodies, then build the walls of the cells that are used to house the developing brood, and to store pollen and nectar. The bees will eventually turn this nectar into honey.

The hives are designed so that all of the frames and the boxes that contain them are interchangeable, allowing the beekeeper to stack and move resources between hives when necessary. By adding a lid and an opening for the hive entrance (and bees of course), Langstroth bee boxes become bee hives.

The uniformity of the Langstroth hive has also allowed beekeepers to transport the bees from place to place. Migration is perhaps the defining feature of modern commercial beekeeping, where beekeepers relocate their bees in order to maximise honey production and ensure the bees have proper nutrition. The modern commercial beekeeper needs a truck (ranging in size from ute to large flatbed) and has beehives on modified pallets, which they move using forklifts and cranes.

Although maximising honey production may have been the initial reason for moving hives, the motivation for migration in many countries is increasingly to provide commercial pollination services to agricultural producers.

The most striking example of this is in the United States, where beekeepers bring their bees from all over the country to California in order to pollinate vast almond crops, which are 100% dependent on honey bee pollination. But bringing together the bees of nearly an entire country like this can allow for the rapid exchange of honey bee pests and parasites between usually separated bee populations.

This form of commercial pollination is one of many potential stressors that are contributing to the global bee decline. Others include pesticides, climate change, and the spread of the Varroa mite, which acts as a disease vector between honey bee colonies.

In the old days, children generally gave bee-keepers a wide berth, and left them to their anti-social activities. Apiarists gained a reputation for maintaining a nebulous communication with their charges while humming along with the buzzing. Meditation, and zen are often used in literature on the subject of bee-keeping, but one thing is certain – individuals who follow the practice are certainly solitary, and often of a singular nature that defies organisation.

What is also clear is that there has been a series of disease and vector invasions into this country over the years that have caused consternation, and loss of those stoic qualities for which our bee-keepers are widely known. Disaster is widely predicted, but never quite arrives – nevertheless, a world-wide decline through untreatable disease appears inevitable.  What effect this will have on World food production is unpredictable, but in the eyes of many, apocalyptic.

My recent posts on the subject of the use of Council road reserves by bee-keepers has given rise  to a number of emailed reports regarding the state of the industry, both nationally and locally. It will come as no surprise that the individualistic nature of those involved in the industry has resulted in resistance to any attempt at herding them into a national organisation covering all sectors of the industry – ranging from part-timers with a few hives to large scale operators with thousands of hives spread over vast areas of the countryside.

Large scale exporters, along with the Department of Primary Industry are desperate to get the whole industry corralled into a single group that will allow for proper regulation, and setting of standards. This has become even more urgent with the advent of the Manuka phenomena that has created a range of overnight millionaires, and ‘would-be’ millionaires who interests may well lie in keeping regulation at bay.

Here is an extract from a recent article on manuka by Lynley Hargreaves:

"Manuka honey – which at one time beekeepers literally gave away – is now bringing such fantastic prices that plans are afoot to create large-scale manuka plantations, and young people around the country are taking up hives and veils. Beekeeping specialist Cliff Van Eaton – whose fascinating account of how manuka honey became a New Zealand icon is a finalist for the 2015 Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize – and researcher Peter Molan, who first discovered the unique antibacterial properties of the honey, tell us more about the amazing rags-to-riches manuka story."

Some are predicting a billion-dollar industry in the foreseeable future in the Kiwifruit league, and vast areas of Wairarapa and Central North Island are in the process of being converted back to manuka production. Ironically, even greater incentives will be required to persuade apiarists to truck their hives to Kiwifruit orchards for pollination purposes - Kiwifruit vines being notoriously parsimonious in giving up pollen or honey.

The problem lies in the standards that apply to just what is manuka honey – even a whiff of the familiar pungent odour is sufficient for many to label their often elaborate jars as “manuka,” and seek access to niche markets in the same manner as the wine industry. But this is not simply taste that is being purveyed – it is the health qualities related exclusively to the manuka content. And establishing accurate manuka levels, let alone verifiable labelling remains a vexatious issue.

Loss of the extraordinary premium being paid for proven content would be instantaneous, and probably ruinous for the industry in the long-term – particularly in the fickle Chinese market, but also the up-scale health conscious European market could see the rapid demise of the great modern cash-cow!

Provable content is therefore essential – at least in the eyes of the major players.

It seems that least two organisations represent NZ beekeepers – the National Beekeepers Association (NBA) and Beekeepers of NZ. Major commercial interests appear to dominate, or plan to dominate the former, and individuals, the latter, but cross membership occurs, and recent moves to consolidate membership with a revised constitution is running into major difficulty despite desperate attempts by the DPI and minister Nathan Guy to achieve the desired unity.

Based on the information emailed to me, this is unlikely to happen easily, or quickly. There is simply too much at stake, and mutual suspicion of the motives of each sector is palpable. Social media comment often appears actionable. What this has to do with my original posts? - I have no idea, but I think it is interesting that someone decided to dial me into this loop, and I am simply trying to now make sense of it all.

But here is another thing - brand new hives arrived on the private property I referred to on Victoria St Extension, a couple of weeks ago. The agitated inhabitants set about on the same day exacting revenge on the users of the nearby swimming hole, of which we were but one. Probably a temporary aberration, but bloody painful, I assure you. Meanwhile, the road reserve mob continue on their merry way!

Ironic, in the circumstances!




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