Bee research in peril - New Zeland
Alison Kay

News that New Zealand's bee research unit at Ruakura had missed out on major funding has set beekeepers and related industries buzzing.

As the varroa bee mite creeps down the North Island and will almost certainly cross Cook Strait in time, industry sources fear the effects if the unit is closed before completing its research.

However HortResearch is likely to carry the cost of the unit while alternative funding is sought, rather than see its varroa work wasted.

HortResearch employs a team of two scientists and two research staff at the Honey Bee Research Unit at Ruakura, Hamilton. Last month its application for $700,000 annually for five years was declined by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST). The sum represented 90% of the unit's annual budget.

HortResearch chief executive Paul McGilvary said FRST scored funding applications on a competitive points system and although he was told the bee research unit had scored very well, it failed to make the grade for funding.

"The unit at Ruakura can't survive if there is no funding but just because FRST decided not to fund it, doesn't mean nobody else will. We are working quite closely with a number of parties to try to get funding," Mr McGilvary told The Orchardist.

Groups included regional authorities, fruit industry bodies and Federated Farmers. All were supportive and acknowledged that bees were a cost-effective pollinator, responsible for 90% of New Zealand crop pollination. However they had to consult with members and consider budgets before funds could be committed.

Mr McGilvary said honey bees could no longer survive without human intervention and long-term research into the varroa mite was vital. This was especially so for organic honey producers. Varroa could wipe out the strong South Island organic honey industry because chemical controls were needed to protect hives from the mite.

He said HortResearch would carry the cost of the bee research unit while it awaited news on funding.

"If it closed, it couldn't be re-opened. Staff would move on to other work. It's important we try to retain its capabilities in the interests of New Zealand, till we determine its long-term funding prospects."

Bee unit team leader Mark Goodwin was less optimistic about future funding, especially from the beekeeping industry.

The industry was worth about $60 million and fighting varroa took out about $16 million. It almost certainly couldn't fund much further research but may be able to find a little money, he said.

The research unit had received Government funding for two years' research into varroa after the mite reached New Zealand in 2000. The mite has been around for 50-60 years and has spread throughout the world with the exceptions of Australia, Afghanistan and the South Island.

"The fact that Australia and New Zealand kept it out for so long is more surprising than the fact that we have now got it. It is moving down the North Island and has just got to Wellington."

Dr Goodwin said it was inevitable the mite would reach the South Island and there were plans to try to eradicate it as soon as it arrived.

"It's a straight economic problem for the South Island. It's likely that about 40 percent of South Island beekeepers would immediately be no longer viable."

The research unit had a number of issues still to be resolved:-

The biggest and most immediate problem area was organics. A number of organic products had been registered but were not at the stage where beekeepers would rely on them. It was likely organic beekeeping in New Zealand would not survive.

The question of varroa mite resistance to present controls. This was likely to happen in three or four years. US research suggested varroa treatments started to fail after about seven years and it was hoped the research unit would not have to face that problem, being able to prepare for it in advance.

Further work on an eradication programme for the South Island needed to be done for it to be successful.

In a bold move, the unit began a long-term breeding programme one year ago, to find a varroa tolerant bee. Dr Goodwin likened the funding approval for this to a game of high stakes poker - the thinking was that if it was started, because of its national importance, somebody would continue to fund it.

Dr Goodwin said people had expressed absolute disbelief at news of the failed FRST application.

"If it just affected the beekeeping industry, you could perhaps understand it but it underpins everything from the agricultural and horticultural industries right down to pollination in home gardens."

He said politicians were asking questions and lobbying on the unit's behalf.

Meantime, the next month would be spent tidying up the unit's work, salvaging anything useful and making as much as possible available to people. The breeding programme could not be saved.

Ironically, if the unit closed, Dr Goodwin said a trip to the Solomon Islands was likely to assist there with the recently arrived varroa mite. That country gets foreign aid.

He also expected to be called to Australia when the mite arrived there.

He said he got "quite a buzz - a weak beekeeper's joke" to learn that New Zealand beekeepers believed the unit's research work was about two years ahead of the United States.

"Personally, the hardest thing is that for now we have to stand with our hands in our pockets and watch.

"Varroa is not the worst thing that could happen to New Zealand as far as beekeeping is concerned. There are others that could be more devastating or add to varroa. That is why having a bee research capability was of such value."

And for one so passionate about bees, Dr Goodwin said he used to have 10 hives of his own - till varroa killed them.

National Beekeepers Association of New Zealand president Jane Lorimer, of Hamilton, said beekeepers were horrified to learn of the funding cut.

"Mark and his team were only part-way through their work. Their work has been hugely valuable, especially their education work and help with safety measures and organics. But some research work has not yet produced usable results. Taxpayers' money has gone into it from 2000 - $589,000 in the first year and $500,000 the next year. That money has been wasted."

Mrs Lorimer said the beekeepers association had some money in trust but it would be impossible to fully fund the research unit. Applying for other grants was costly and time-consuming but the organization was considering its options. Both the beekeepers association and Federated Farmers bee industry group were lobbying MPs to see if the government could come up with funds.

"Right from the start of varroa, we have tried to make farmers and horticulturists aware of the potential losses to their industries. Last year we were very close to not being able to meet the demand for hives for kiwifruit pollination. This coming year there are larger areas of kiwifruit coming into production and we are predicting a shortage of hives.

"Beekeepers are looking at where the best returns are and are deciding not to do pollination and to produce manuka honey instead. It is a time-consuming job preparing hives for kiwifruit pollination."

Mrs Lorimer said the varroa-tolerant bee breeding programme was vital to the New Zealand industry. "If we don't find a varroa tolerant bee in New Zealand, we have to look at bringing stock from overseas and we are loath to do that. It could bring in other diseases and traits that we don't want in New Zealand."

Peter Silcock, chief executive of the New Zealand Fruitgrowers Federation and New Zealand Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation, said bees were vital to the fruit and vegetable industries.

Fruit exports were worth $1.2 billion annually and bees underpinned the success of the industry. While not at this stage trying to raise funds for the bee research unit, Mr Silcock said the Federations hoped to meet with FRST in early September to discuss funding criteria.

"It seems to us the research unit is a critical capability to have. If we are going to lose funding, it would be a major problem."

Varroa's Impact
Estimated costs of the varroa mite up to 2035

  • Arable $13.2 million
  • Beekeeping $34.6 million
  • Horticulture $64 million
  • Pastoral $402 million
  • Total : $513.8 million
  • (MAF estimate - middle case scenario)