Sunday, August 14, 2022

High hive numbers not helping production

A poor summer and continuous overstocking of beehives in some areas have contributed to a slide in honey production for the 2020-21 season, while honey exports leapt sharply from previous years.

Dr Mark Goodwin is cautioning that high hive numbers in NZ will contribute to a slide in per hive production and beekeeping profitability.

A poor summer and continuous overstocking of beehives in some areas have contributed to a slide in honey production for the 2020-21 season, while honey exports leapt sharply from previous years.

The latest MPI Apiculture Monitoring report also reveals a decline in total hive numbers in New Zealand. The total of 806,140 is a drop of 12% from the industry’s peak in 2019 of 918,000. 

Total honey production for the 2020-21 season has dropped 24% on the year before, with a significant slide in per hive production of 18%.

Meanwhile, the number of registered beekeeping enterprises has continued to rise, totalling 9891, driven almost entirely by the lift in registered “hobbyist” beekeepers with under 50 hives, predominantly having only five or less.

Home-based hobby beekeepers with five hives or less have experienced an unprecedented surge over the past decade, totalling 6748, up from only 2460 in 2012.

But despite the slide in hive numbers, long time bee researcher Dr Mark Goodwin is cautioning that overstocking of hive numbers in certain areas remains, and is likely to for as long as highly-valued mānuka honey is a key focus for beekeepers.

“Areas like Northland and Coromandel Peninsula in particular are under pressure for hive numbers,” Goodwin said.

Northland and Waikato comprise 35% of the North Islands hive numbers, with Waikato the second-highest number of hives after Manawatū-Whanganui.

Goodwin likened high hive concentrations to overstocking livestock on pasture.

“You may manage to keep them alive, but you will not manage to put any weight on them,” he said.

In the case of bees this was equivalent to generating generous honey surpluses beyond the colony’s needs in every hive.

 The North Island yield per hive took a particular hit last season, averaging only 84% of the 10-year average at 22.5kg of honey per hive.

South Island beekeepers averaged close to their 10-year average of 33kg per hive for 2020-21.

Apiculture NZ chief executive Karin Kos says the findings will not be surprising to many beekeepers after a summer that presented more challenging weather conditions than the previous season.

Goodwin says longer-term, overstocking will reduce the profitability of beekeeping.

“Lower returns may see things step back a bit and overstocking will always push production down,” he said.

Bees should typically be capable of gathering sufficient pollen within 1km, but many were compelled to fly 10km and once they did, they had to use more of the honey themselves that would otherwise generate a harvestable surplus.

Prices for non-mānuka honey continued to languish at the $3-$6/kg price range for 2020-21, up little from the 2019-20 harvest season values.

This price range is similar or less than what beekeepers were earning per kg a decade ago, well down on the peak of $10-$14 a kg fetched in 2017.

Mānuka prices remained firm at $8-$120 per kg depending upon grade, and mānuka honey underpinned the record setting volume of 12,788t of total honey exported last season. This was up 20% on the 2019-20 season.

Kos says export volumes increased sharply in mid-2020 after the initial covid outbreak, thanks in part to supply stocking and greater consumer interest in healthy, immune-boosting food products.

She says export volumes this season continue to consolidate at above pre-covid levels and at the end of October were on track to meet last year’s record volume.

“Looking ahead, late flowering at the start of the 2021-22 season has resulted in the spring nectar flow being slower to kick in. However, warmer weather over the past month has seen better honey flow in most regions and beekeepers are looking forward to a good season production-wise,” Kos said.

Despite the high number of hives in some areas, Goodwin welcomed the lift in hobby beekeeper numbers in NZ.

“They often occur in urban areas and we lost a lot when varroa came. But they have learnt to deal with that and reflect a worldwide lift in hobby beekeepers,” Goodwin said. He emphasised a need for them to ensure they learnt good hive management practices to identify and contain diseases, including American Foulbrood, a particularly problematic disease in hives that requires notification if discovered.

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