Bees are prized for their honey – New Zealanders each eat about 1.5 kilograms of it per year, which is high by world standards.
While gathering nectar to make honey, bees carry pollen grains from one flower to another and pollinate fruit-bearing plants – essential in the production of agricultural and horticultural crops. The value of bees to these industries is many times greater than the revenue earned by honey.
Bees have been making honey for about 10–20 million years. The ancient Egyptians used honey to embalm their dead, and Alexander the Great was buried in white honey.
In My bee book (1842), the Reverend William Cotton concluded that bees should be introduced to New Zealand to ‘confer on the natives of New Zealand the pleasure and profits of bees of their own.’ 1 It was later recognised that bees were essential for pollinating the white clover being sown in pastures with seed from England. The clover grew well, but could not reseed without a pollinator.
Mary Bumby, the sister of a Northland missionary, was probably the first to introduce bees to New Zealand. In March 1839 she brought two hives with her from England on the James to the Mangungu Mission Station in Hokianga Harbour. In 1840 Eliza Hobson brought a hive which was later taken over (unsuccessfully) by the Reverend Richard Taylor. Father Jean-Baptiste Petitjean is thought to have introduced bees to the Bay of Islands in 1842. In 1843 James Busby brought three hives from Sydney, one of which was received by William Cotton.
The New Zealand bush proved a hospitable place for bees, and the number of wild colonies multiplied rapidly, especially in the Bay of Islands. Isaac Hopkins, regarded as the father of beekeeping in New Zealand, observed that by the 1860s bee nests in the bush were plentiful, and considerable quantities of honey were being sold by Māori – who were the country’s first commercial beekeepers.
In 1848 Cotton wrote A manual for New Zealand beekeepers, which described the basics of bee husbandry and the production of honey and associated products.
The Langstroth hive was named after the Reverend L. L. Langstroth, an American, and described in his 1871 book, The hive and the honey bee. He was not the first to use the hanging frames, but did discover that bees failed to build a honeycomb in a space of less than 6.3 millimetres or greater than 9.5 millimetres. If the space was smaller, bees filled the gap with propolis; if the gap was larger they would not use it.
The commercial production of honey in New Zealand began only after the introduction of the Langstroth hive in 1878. After the First World War, beekeeping rapidly became more popular as land was developed and returned servicemen were trained as beekeepers. Motorised transport made the spread of hives across the countryside easier, and made beekeeping more economic.
There were about 100,000 hives in New Zealand by the end of the 1920s. Beekeeping flourished again after the Second World War, and in 1950 there were some 7,000 beekeepers with 150,000 hives. By 1988 there were 335,000 hives, partly due to the demand for pollination services, and also because of the market for a broader range of honey types and products. In 2019 there were 925,000 registered hives, and beekeepers were concerned about bee food sources.
Bees belong to the order Hymenoptera, in the superfamily Apoidea. There are about 20,000 species of bee worldwide, and they are found on all continents except Antarctica.
New Zealand has 28 native bee species, compared with 925 in Australia. Most are small, have little colour, and live in solitary burrows (although in some species the burrows may be clustered together). They are effective pollinators and are often found on mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) flowers. However, although they collect and store nectar, they do not produce honey in commercial quantities.
In the early 2000s there were 13 introduced species of bee in New Zealand. These included honeybees, alkalia bees, leafcutter bees, osmia bees and bumblebees.
The first honeybees brought to New Zealand were the Northern European black strain (Apis mellifera). The first of the yellow Italian strains were imported about 1880. Other strains came from Australia and America.
The bumblebee queen starts a nest on her own, and colonies have 50–200 bees. Colonies do not last more than a year. Nests run down in late summer, and when the queen dies, new queens leave and overwinter in the soil.
Only female bees sting. Having stung something as big as a human, a bee will lose its entire rear segment, including the nerves, muscles, venom sac, and the end of the digestive tract. The sting consists of two spears with barbs on the outer sides. Even when detached from the bee, it continues to pump venom into the wound, so it is important to remove the barbs as soon as possible.
A number of insects other than honeybees and bumblebees can pollinate flowers and are important crop pollinators. These include leafcutter bees, solitary native bees and some fly species. None of them have yet been used to pollinate field crops, although research is being done to investigate this possibility.
A honeybee hive is an intricate social structure. Unlike bumblebee colonies, which survive less than a year, honeybee colonies last for several years. They may have as many as 60,000 bees, made up of three castes:
Every hive needs a queen to continually lay eggs and renew the population. She deposits the eggs singly in cells of the wax comb. After three or four days, a larva hatches and is fed by a particular worker bee. Each worker will visit a larvae about 1,000 times, so can only look after three or four. Larvae develop into a pupa while still in the cell. Drones take 24 days and workers 21 days to complete the egg, larval and pupal stages.
There is usually only one queen in a hive, attended and fed by a small group of bees. On a sunny day she will fly out of the hive and into the air where only the strongest drones can follow. She will mate with a few of them, who then die. After a few days she is loaded with millions of sperm, and will start laying eggs at the rate of about 1,500 per day. A fertile queen is able to selectively lay fertilised or unfertilised eggs. Fertilised eggs hatch into workers or virgin queens, while unfertilised eggs produce drones. A queen lives three to five years, compared with drones, who usually die before winter, and workers, who live only a few weeks or months.
When a queen grows old or dies, or the colony becomes very large, workers raise a new queen. They feed royal jelly to virgin queens, which develop in enlarged cells of the hive. It takes about 16 days for a queen to complete the egg, larval and pupal stages. The first queen to emerge immediately kills her unhatched rivals.
New honeybee colonies form when a queen bee leaves the hive with a large entourage of worker bees. Swarming usually happens in spring, but can happen throughout the honey-producing season. In apiaries swarming is undesirable – if bees leave, less honey is made. To solve the problem, beekeepers may encourage the bees to start new colonies before the natural swarming time. Swarms may seem frightening, but the bees are not normally aggressive.
While some colonies live in hives provided by people, others will choose a ‘wild’ nest site that is clean, dry and sheltered. Ideal nests are about 3 metres above the ground, 20 litres in volume, have an entrance 4–6 centimetres square, and face north or north-west. Natural nest sites include hollows in cabbage trees, white pine or willows, or in large rocks. Most native bees live in small burrows in dry soil in banks or on bare flats – sometimes these are abandoned rodent nests.
The natural instinct of bees is to gather pollen and nectar to produce and store honey as food, especially for winter, when few flowers are around. If a person removes some of the honey the bees are driven to produce more. A busy hive may store more than 150 kilograms of honey in a year. More than 20 kilograms of this is needed to sustain the hive through winter. In a year, much more honey and pollen are consumed by bees than is stored.
Honeybees have a long proboscis to reach the nectar from flowers. They collect nectar for energy and to make honey. Pollen provides protein and other nutrients, especially for bee larvae or young grubs.
Most bees are hairy and carry an electrostatic charge that helps attract and hold pollen. Worker bees periodically stop foraging and groom themselves to pack the pollen into ‘baskets’ on their legs.
Members of a colony will gather nectar and pollen from a variety of plants, although on any single day an individual bee will visit only one type. The advantage of this is that the bee becomes expert in gathering from that flower. Flowers produce nectar at different times of the day, and bees learn the best time to visit.
For a bee to produce a teaspoon of honey, she will have to visit 500 flowers and fill her ‘stomach’ 60 times. For a hive to produce a kilogram of honey, collectively the bees will fly the equivalent of three times around the globe.
Pollen is mixed with nectar to form a firm mass, which is stored in the cells of the wax honeycomb in a hive. Nectar is stored in other cells as a first stage in the preparation of honey. Honeybees never sleep, and at night spend long hours fanning the nectar to dry it.
Native bees usually get nectar from flowering native plants, while introduced bees visit other flowers. Native plants have disappeared from some areas because of land development, so native bees have had to find other sources of nectar and pollen. However, there does not appear to be any direct competition between the species for these resources.
Bees have complex ways of communicating where to find nectar and pollen. Those returned from a gathering trip will dance and emit odours to signal where to find the best sources, even if these are several kilometres away. The dances were first noted by Aristotle in 330 BCE, and analysed by Austrian zoologist and 1973 Nobel prizewinner Karl von Frisch. He noticed that a waggle dance indicates food is at a distance in the direction of the waggle. A round dance shows food is close by, as does releasing a floral odour.
Bees can detect dozens of floral scents as well as see colours. Bees take their sense of direction from the sun. On lightly cloudy days they may use polarised light to work out the sun’s position, and on very cloudy days they rely on landmarks, such as trees, and the position of these in relation to the home hive.
The most common domestic hive is the movable Langstroth type, made up of stacked boxes. Each box contains tray-like frames made of wax or plastic, which slide in vertically and provide a base for the wax honeycomb cells. Honey is deposited in the upper boxes, and the lower boxes house the queen and most of the bees. After the beekeeper has removed the honey, the frames are usually returned to the hive so more honey can be deposited.
Workers begin the beehive by building a lattice of beeswax – a honeycomb. Its cells will contain the growing young and store honey and pollen. Building is hard work – it takes as much food to make a kilogram of beeswax honeycomb as it does to produce 8 kilograms of honey. It has been estimated that bees have to fly the equivalent of 1,160,000 kilometres to produce 1 kilogram of beeswax.
Workers use wax taken from 12–17-day-old worker bees, which secrete the wax from glands on the underside of their abdomen. The size of the glands depends on the bee’s age. For wax secretion to occur, the temperature in the hive has to be 33–36°C.
In commercial hives, beekeepers recycle most of the beeswax so the bees can concentrate their energy on making honey.
Worker bees have a busy but short life, the duration of which depends on the season – four or five months in winter, but only six weeks in summer.
Having just emerged from egg, larva and pupa stages, adult workers stay inside the hive. They clean previously used cells so they are ready for new eggs, feed larvae, build honeycombs and store food. Food storage involves sealing dried honey into cells with a wax cap. Pollen brought into the hive for feeding the brood is also stored. It is blended with a small amount of honey to prevent spoiling, then the mixture is firmly packed into comb cells.
The term honeymoon came from the old custom of giving newlyweds mead (an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey) for the first 30 days of their marriage.
Young nurse bees (workers 3–5 days old) feed worker larvae ‘beebread’ made of pollen and honey. Advanced nurse bees (workers 6–11 days old) feed royal jelly to the queen larva and to drone and worker larvae which are 1-3 days old. Drones do not feed themselves – they are fed on demand by workers.
The next phase of the worker’s life is to take a short turn at ventilating and guarding the hive. They fan the hive to cool it during the day and dry the honey at night. To guard the entrance of the hive, workers check incoming bees to ensure they have the correct odour and are bringing in food. Strangers are attacked and may be killed.
The final period of a worker’s life is spent foraging for nectar and pollen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Until 1955 most of the honey produced in New Zealand was sold to the Internal Marketing Division, a government agency. In 1955 the Honey Marketing Authority was formed, which until 1980 was effectively the sole exporter of honey from New Zealand. This ceased in the 1980s, when private individuals and companies began to export honey and honey products.
All premises involved in the extraction, processing and packing of honey must be registered under the Food Hygiene Regulations 1974.
Mānuka honey (and its Australian equivalent) is the only one sold that has antibacterial qualities. It contains a component found only in honey produced from Leptospermum plants. All honey initially has antibacterial activity, due to hydrogen peroxide formed by the enzyme glucose oxidase, but this enzyme is destroyed when exposed to heat and light. Unlike other honeys, mānuka honey is stable and does not lose its activity in storage.
The colour and flavour of honey is determined by the nectar it is made from. White clover produces a white honey, valued for its smooth texture and delicate taste. The white blossom of mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium), which grows uncultivated throughout the country, produces a rich, amber-coloured honey with a strong aromatic flavour. Other honey types come from native trees such as rātā, rewarewa and kāmahi, or from plants such as vipers bugloss (Echium vulgare) and thyme.
Annual honey production averages about 24 kilograms per hive, but this depends on the weather. The average for the 2006 season was 34.7 kilograms. Between 2001 and 2005, New Zealand produced 9,000 tonnes of honey per year – an average of about 30 kilograms per hive. Busy hives can produce several times this amount in a good season.
Most beeswax is recycled into new combs for hives, but the rest is used to make candles, furniture polish, lipsticks, crayons, face creams and chewing gum.
Propolis has high levels of bio-flavonoids, thought to help boost the immune system. Pollen is sold for its amino acids, minerals and vitamins. Creamy-white royal jelly, a secretion of young bees used to feed the queen, is considered to have health benefits. Honey and other bee products are processed into skincare creams.
Propolis is a gum or resin exuded by trees and shrubs and collected by bees. Beekeepers scrape it off hive frames and boxes, and usually mix it with beeswax. Propolis is an antibiotic, and is made into many therapeutic products after extraction and refining.
The export of live bees generated $0.9 million in 2006. Queens, or packages of worker bees and a queen, are sold to stock new hives. This well-established trade is due to New Zealand’s reputation for having comparatively disease-free stock.
In the 2000s, beekeepers hired out more than 90,000 hives each year to pollinate crops, mostly kiwifruit. It was estimated that pollination services were worth about $9 million annually. The value of bee pollination to the agricultural industry is difficult to estimate, but is predominantly related to the pollination of white clover flowers. In pasture, the regeneration of clover is largely from seed heads that have dropped seeds onto the soil, some of which last for many years before germinating. On cropping farms, clover seeds are harvested and sold for the sowing of new pastures. The production of these seeds required pollination of clover flowers at some earlier date.
The most serious disease of honeybees in New Zealand is American foulbrood (AFB), which is caused by a bacterium. Extremely contagious and deadly, it affects only the larvae and has a characteristic smell. It was accidentally introduced with the first bee imports and by the 1880s was well established. Legislation in the early 20th century set up measures to control AFB and helped keep commercial beekeeping economically worthwhile.
In 1991 the New Zealand government stopped funding the honeybee disease control programme, and the National Beekeepers Association began to contract agencies to control disease. They inspect about 10% of apiaries each year and are on standby for an outbreak of exotic bee disease. Using the Biosecurity Act 1993, the National Beekeepers Association created the Biosecurity (National American Foulbrood Pest Management Strategy) Order 1998, which aims to eliminate the disease from New Zealand. The Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry has a role in border protection and export certification.
In 2000 the parasitic varroa bee mite (Varroa destructor) was found in New Zealand. It has become established in the North Island, and detected in some northern South Island hives. The mite appears as a red or brown spot on the bee’s thorax, or on a larva. It enters a hive on an adult bee, then crawls into a brood cell, where it lays its eggs. These hatch, and the mite goes through two juvenile stages before reaching adulthood. When the adult bee emerges from the cell it takes the mites, which are feeding on its body fluids. Mites may also carry a harmful virus.
Varroa mites are usually not a problem in a thriving hive, but in autumn and winter, when the bee population drops, the mites can overtake a hive and destroy it. Between 2000 and 2005, more than 25,000 hives were lost in the North Island. The spread and impact of the mite can be minimised by isolating affected hives.
Other exotic threats to the beekeeping industry are European foulbrood (Melissococcus pluton), Asian bee mite (Tropilaelaps clareae), bee louse (Braula coeca), and Africanised bees (Apis mellifera scutellata), which introduce aggressive behaviour. Wasps can be a problem in large numbers, as they can destroy hives.
In 2007 a new disease known as deformed wing virus was found in Northland. This was linked to the varroa mite and had the potential to seriously affect the bee industry.
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Mackenzie, Raewyn. ‘The amazing bee.’ New Zealand Geographic 2 (April–June 1989): 49–69.
Matheson, Andrew. Practical beekeeping in New Zealand. 3rd ed. Wellington: GP Publications, 1997.