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Bees Are Flourishing In New Zealand

Bees are an essential component of a strong agricultural sector. They support New Zealand’s $6 billion horticultural industry by pollinating food crops as well as producing a multitude of honey-based products.

Despite recent reports of declining bee numbers due to pesticide use, figures released by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) show that beehive numbers have increased three-fold since 2005. According to its apiculture monitoring programme, hive numbers reached over 918,000 in 2019, up from below 300,000 fourteen years ago. The numbers have consistently been on an upward trend since then, with the latest figures showing a four percent increase on the previous year.

Independent scientific research included in the report concluded that the destructive varroa mite is the main cause of bee losses. It is now widely accepted that honeybees cannot survive in New Zealand without human intervention. This is due to the mite decimating wild bee populations. Other causes of bee deaths include wasps, drought, loss of the queen and starvation. There were no reports of pesticides causing the loss of bees or beehives.

Nevertheless, all pesticides must be used responsibly to ensure that they do not come into contact with bees and other beneficial insects. This includes avoiding the use of sprays when bees are foraging. Pesticides, especially those that are toxic to bees, such as broad-spectrum insecticides, must be used according to the label and in the right conditions. Farmers and beekeepers should work together to manage the use of pesticides near hives.

Agcarm members are proactive in supporting bee health – by providing products to control the varroa mite as well as educating farmers and raising awareness of bee health issues. A seed treatment stewardship guide is also available for the safe use of neonicotinoid seed treatments that are used on the seeds of plants to protect them from insect attack as they grow. Neonicotinoid sprays, which are more harmful to bees, are very rarely used in New Zealand. Something that is commonly misunderstood.

Another area that causes some confusion relates to sub-lethal effects.

Sub-lethal effects do not directly cause mortality but may impair normal functioning by affecting foraging activity, orientation and homing behaviour. Some studies claim that some pesticides cause sub-lethal effects in bees. However, most have been done in laboratories or other artificial design conditions.

When alleged effects were tested under realistic field conditions, they could not be found to pose any damage to bee colonies.

MPI also tests residues from commonly used agrichemicals in food, including honey products. The food safety regulator sets very conservative limits for residues in food. These are many times below levels that would be a risk to consumers.

MPI confirms that the New Zealand diet is safe and that contaminants are very low – far below levels that would be a food safety risk – and mostly occur naturally.

Conclusions about a matter as important as bee deaths must be non-biased, thorough and based on quality science that adheres to internationally recognised standards. The crop protection industry takes pollinator health very seriously, with Agcarm working alongside regulators and stakeholders to encourage further bee population growth.

• Mark Ross is chief executive of Agcarm, the industry association for companies which manufacture and distribute crop protection and animal health products.

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