By John Kerr 03/08/2016

The pollinating power of the humble honeybee is worth millions of dollars to the New Zealand agricultural sector – but we are at risk of losing it.

Bees are having a hard time of it these days; varroa mite, pesticides and a lack of plant diversity are all contributing to the decline of the bee populations crucial for pollinating crops. Now a new study from New Zealand researchers has put a dollar value on just how this much bee decline could cost our farmers.

A number of studies have estimated the value that pollinators provide farmers, but few are based on experimental data from the field. Aiming to get an accurate take on the true value of honeybee pollinators, a team of Kiwi scientists put in the hard yards and conducted a real life experiment.

Pollinators provide a sweet deal for farmers. Fickr / And Murray
Pollinators provide a sweet deal for farmers. Fickr / And Murray

Over several weeks the researchers used fine mesh nets to control the amount access bees had to plots of bok choy, a plant chosen because of its similarities to other important New Zealand crops.

The results of the study, just published in the journal PeerJ, show that the loss of pollination services from honeybees substantially decreases the yield of plants, with some varieties losing almost two thirds of their seed production.

Bad news for bok choi farmers, but what does this mean for the rest of New Zealand’s crops?

Counting the cost of honeybee decline

“We know the decline in bee populations is going to have a major impact on our economy, but we wanted to measure the impact,” explains co-author Professor Stephen Wratten of the Bio-Protection Research Centre in a media release.

The researchers used the data gleaned from their experiments to calculate what the total economic cost of honeybee decline would be for 18 of New Zealand’s main crops including kiwifruit, apples and clover.

They don’t sugar coat the bottom line in the PeerJ article, writing:

“The economic loss to New Zealand agriculture could be in the range of NZD $295–728 million per year depending on the extent of future changes in pollination provided by honeybees”

“A 25% or greater loss in pollination rates is a likely scenario in areas where pollinator numbers have been steadily decreasing. This work shows that such decrease could have a major economic impact on the agricultural industry in New Zealand.”

Speaking to NewsHub, Prof Wratten was concerned that consumers won’t notice until it hits them in the pocket:

“I think they’ll understand it more clearly when the price of apples in supermarkets goes up 50 percent – or oranges or mandarins or satsumas or peaches or apricots or cherries. That’s when it hits home, really.”

So what’s the solution?

honeybee homes
Beehives, Kaingaroa Forest. Credit: Flickr / Russell Street.

A ‘recipe’ for success

A key factor in preventing pollinator decline is ensuring there is a diversity of plants to maintain healthy insect populations. Professor Wratten says the answers are out there but farmers need help putting it into practice.

“There is a lot of scientific knowledge accumulating but this has to be turned into ‘recipes’ for end users like farmers to understand and implement.

“The big challenge is to have a recipe that works. Give farmers the right seeds to plant. Make sure the bees get what they need. It’s not about planting pretty flowers. It’s the science that counts.

“The best way to deliver this is through what we might call ‘farmer teachers’ – farmers who understand and use the recipe, who will get out into the paddock and be listened to by other farmers.”


Featured image: Wikimedia / Andreas Trepte 


0 Responses to “Honeybee decline could sting NZ for $700m”

  • Yes this is what could happen if bee numbers declined. However look at the actual evidence with the boom in manuka honey commercial hive numbers are up and those bees can’t live on Manuka all year long, they are moved around. Kiwifruit growers have long understood the importantance of good pollination and pay for enough hives of the correct strength to be brought into their orchards each year. Similarly other growers make the same provisions for their crops and beekeepers have responded to the demand. Commercially farmed bees are not going to disappear from New Zealand anytime soon.