In New Zealand, as elsewhere, most hives are owned by just a few beekeepers or apiarists. Only about 10% of beekeepers are in commercial or semi-commercial businesses, but they own about 90% of the hives. The remainder are hobby beekeepers. In 2007 there were 457 registered beekeepers who owned 50 or more hives each.
From hives to heights
Perhaps New Zealand’s most famous beekeeper was Sir Edmund Hillary. Before he became one of the first people to climb Mt Everest, he was a beekeeper in Auckland.
Hives in winter
One of the main challenges for beekeepers is to ensure the maximum number of bees in spring, when flowers produce the most nectar. Bees do not work in the rain or cold, so must stockpile enough honey to get the hive through winter – they need at least 20 kilograms. Beekeepers often feed bees sugar so the insects can maintain their energy and health without using up valuable honey stores. When hives are near native bush or extensive tracts of mānuka, the bees can use the early spring nectar from their flowers to produce bush honey, which will keep them fed until clover nectar is ready, about early December.
After a good winter, beekeepers may have to split highly populated hives to prevent the bees from swarming and leaving. Hives that swarm seldom produce surplus honey.
Smoking the hive
Most people picture beekeepers smoking the hive dressed in protective clothing, including gloves, hood and veil, with bees swarming all around. However, many experienced beekeepers dispense with this except the hood, as stings to the face are more painful than elsewhere.
Smoking the bees
Beekeepers use a bee smoker to blow smoke into a hive before inspecting or handling it – smoke quietens the bees and reduces the likelihood of attack. The ancient Egyptians used this method to harvest the honey. They held a shell or piece of pottery filled with smoldering cow dung, and blew plumes of smoke into the hive.
When beekeepers want to collect honey, or move hives, they pump smoke into the hive to quieten the bees. Normally, if a hive is threatened, guard bees will release a chemical called isopentyl acetate (also called isoamyl acetate) to alert the middle-aged bees (which have the most venom) to defend the hive by attacking the intruder. But smoke dulls the guard bees' receptors, and they fail to sound the alarm. Smoke also makes the bees gorge themselves on honey in case they have to leave the hive and build another one – this overeating calms them.
Moving the hives
As well as collecting honey in late spring to summer, beekeepers transport hives around the country, leasing them to farmers and orchardists to pollinate their crops and clover.