Bees are in trouble around the world. In New Zealand, hive numbers are increasing because of growing interest in manuka honey, but even here, there has been a surge in unexplained colony losses.
Last spring, Coromandel beekeepers reported the disappearance of thousands of colonies of bees, reducing their honey harvest by half. Similar losses were reported in the Wairarapa, and the symptoms were consistent with colony collapse disorder, which has been blamed for decimating bee populations in the United States and Europe.
In New Zealand, several factors are blamed for the continued decline in bees, including diseases, pests, pesticides, starvation and overstocking, but to get a clearer idea of the causes, Landcare Research has launched New Zealand’s first national survey of bee health and is asking beekeepers to help protect the $5.1 billion industry.
Pike Brown, the director of the Bee Colony Loss and Survival Survey, says the online survey will gather baseline information about colony loss and survival to track changes in the future. "This is an opportunity for us to use an international standard to start tracking New Zealand's bees so we understand emerging problems for the New Zealand industry."
The survey adheres to international standards to allow for worldwide comparison. However, he says, it has been tailored to the needs of New Zealand beekeepers by including references to food sources such as manuka, and certain New Zealand-specific techniques to treat and monitor the Varroa mite.
This is a New Zealand specific survey, even though we allow for international comparisons. We have problems with habitat loss, we have increasing honey bee pests and diseases, there have been pollen shortages and bee malnutrition that stem from the shortage of declining floral resources, and I think that many would argue that pollination services that are provided by bees are not recognised. By starting to enter data into a survey like this and follow trends over time we'll be better able to understand the importance of bees and also how better to protect them.
All survey participants are assured of the confidentiality of their involvement. You can find some background about the survey, and a link to it, here.
Meanwhile, Australian researchers and the US computer company Intel have launched a high-tech collaboration to investigate bee health.
Intel is contributing the Intel® Edison Breakout Board kit, a customisable platform that is only slightly larger than a postage stamp, which will be distributed worldwide in the form of a bee micro-sensor kit as part of the Global Initiative for Honey bee Health.
The sensor will be placed inside beehives to monitor bee activity via tiny radio frequency identification tags that are placed on the bees’ backs. The sensors work in a similar way to a vehicle’s e-tag, recording when the insect passes the checkpoint.
Paulo de Souza, a science leader at CSIRO, says honey bees are essential for the pollination of about one third of the food we eat, including fruit, vegetables, oils, seeds and nuts, yet their health is under serious threat.
He says the data captured by the new sensor kits will provide valuable information to beekeepers, primary producers, industry groups and governments.
“Bee colonies are collapsing around the world and we don’t know why,” he says. “Due to the urgent and global nature of this issue, we saw the need to develop a methodology that any scientist could easily deploy. This way we can share and compare data from around the world to collaboratively investigate bee health.”