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NZ's "basketcase" bee industry seeks govt help to get national body, levies

Representatives of New Zealand's fragmented bee industry have called on government support to reintroduce commodity levies for honey and the creation of a single national body by April next year.

Appearing before the primary production select committee, John Hartnell, chair of the Federated Farmers Bee Industry Group, Ricki Leahy, president of the National Beekeepers Association and its chief executive Daniel Paul, said government support is needed to reimpose commodity levies to help fund a single, comprehensive national association to represent the industry worth an estimated $5.1 billion annually.

New Zealand's wild bee colonies were effectively wiped out by the arrival of the varroa mite in 2000, which halved the country's pollination workforce. ​The number of registered beekeepers increased 12 percent in 2013/2014 to 4,814, and are nearly back to pre-varroa levels. Meanwhile, total hive numbers reached 500,000, an increase of 55,000 on the previous year, with about 750 commercial beekeepers accounting for over 90 percent of those hives while hobby beekeepers,defined as 50 hives and under, number 4,590. But in July last year, there were only about 800 members across the two bee industry groups.

The National Beekeepers' Association was funded by commodity levies during the late 1990s but when members voted against renewing the levies after their expiry in 2002, membership to the association also became voluntary.

The only way the industry could be successful was to have government support to push the union project and levy through, Hartnell said. He and Paul said the model for the proposed industry association was based on the wine industry, which would allow for smaller, niche beekeepers, as well as larger, consolidated commercial operations.

National MP Ian McKelvie, the chair of the primary production select committee said if the industry brought a request for consolidation to the Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy, the government would look at it.

But Labour's spokesman for primary industries Damien O'connor said 14 years after the arrival of varroa the industry had made no further progress in unifying and was "a basket case" needing further regulation around its food safety standards and exports.

Hartnell said he would detail the proposed structure soon, and that overall there was goodwill from beekeepers to move towards the unified approach. However, there was some reluctance in the industry, such as from hobby beekeepers, who didn't necessarily want to contribute financially, as well as older beekeepers who were hesitant about a "changing of the guard".

"Greed and money comes in front of good things for the industry," Hartnell told the select committee.

The bee industry is not only about honey production, with the wider agricultural industry using hives to pollinate their crops. Hartnell told the committee if it was dairy cows dying there would national outcry, but there seemed little concern over risks to bees. The varroa mite, which Hartnell said is about the size of a dinner plate in comparison to a human, bore holes through the bees making them vulnerable to pathogens in the hive. There was no possibility of eradicating the mite and it was now a reality to be managed to avoid developing pockets of resistance and further damage.

Meanwhile, Asian demand for manuka honey has seen the price across all New Zealand honey increase, while a global shortage of honey has added to demand. Bees produced $187 million of exported honey in the June 2014 year, up 8 percent by volume and almost 30 percent by value on the previous year due.

The industry is concerned the lack of regulation around manuka products will see counterfeits damage the brand. While tests can determine what pollen was used to make the honey, there is no test to show the proportion of manuka honey in a single jar. There is industry concern some domestic and international retailers were diluting manuka honey to extend it further.

A further risk to the bees was the use of chemicals and pesticides by the wider agricultural sector, which needed further research to understand how it was affecting New Zealand bees. The group also called on further education to those using the chemicals to understand the implication it might have on bees.

Green Party MP Steffan Browning said research in Europe was showing that pesticides were a huge part of the declining global bees population. Hartnell said the industry was aware of that research, but the industry needed further New Zealand specific data to help monitor domestic bee health.

The industry had changed dramatically over the past decade, and looking ahead Hartnell said he expects to see greater involvement from iwi and hive rationalisation.