Urban bees remain a vital part of our ecosystem

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Brian Ellis emphasizes the importance of bees in urban areas.

Dunedin City Council is revising its regulations on animals in city gardens, which include bees. We need to find a balance between the importance of animals and insects in our city and the damage they could cause. As far as bees are concerned, they have an essential role and their potential for nuisance is low.

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are one of the most fascinating colonies, forming insects. They were imported to New Zealand in the 19th century to help pollinate crops and provide honey.

A honey bee colony is very structured with a queen bee, workers (females) and drones (males) who each have their role. Forager bees seek sources of pollen and nectar up to 5 km from their hive. So the bees in your garden have likely come from anywhere in Dunedin and beyond. They are able to return home using the sun as a compass, even on a cloudy day. Once at home, they unload their load and communicate the distance and direction from the right sources to the other bees in the hive in a movement known as the “wriggling dance”. While each type of bee has its own role within the hive, the colony behaves as a single, complex organism.

Bees are vital for our food and well-being. Much of our food, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and spices, is dependent on pollination. Cattle and dairy production is heavily dependent on the pollination of forage by insects. Pollinators contribute almost 10% of the total value of global food production. While pollinators include bumblebees, native bees, other insects and birds, the honey bee is by far the largest contributor to pollination.

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in bees and beekeeping. Many urban beekeepers keep bees because of their fascination with bees and to promote pollination in their locality. The production of honey is useful and enjoyable, but is often not the primary purpose of keeping bees.

It is essential that we maintain honey bee colonies and increase understanding of the nature and importance of bees. Bees around the world are threatened by a number of diseases such as the Varroa mite and American Foul Brood. The Varroa mite sucks the “blood” of bees and transmits other diseases such as viruses which, unless treated, result in the death of the colony. American Foul Brood is a highly infectious bacterial disease, for which the only treatment is to kill all the bees in the colony and burn the hive to minimize the risk of transmission to other hives.

Insecticides have contributed to the loss of some colonies. While this has not been a major problem in New Zealand, indiscriminate spraying of insecticides is a potential threat. Any spraying of insecticides in urban as well as rural areas should be undertaken with caution and with regard to nearby beehives. In some countries, hive losses have reached up to 30% per year and hand pollination has been required in parts of China due to bee loss. Climate change is another factor to consider because, with global warming, diseases and pests, especially some prevalent in Asia, could well establish themselves in New Zealand.

In recent years, there has been a tremendous increase in the cultivation of vegetables and fruits in urban gardens. This has been attributed to a desire for a healthier lifestyle along with the trend towards more organic cultivation and the benefits of exercise through gardening. Along with this, there has been the recognition of bees as an important contributor to the pollination of these crops and the establishment of beehives in urban gardens. A number of Dunedin schools have their own beehives which teach the importance of bees and beekeeping. A concern in some people may be the potential to get bitten. Bees will sting predators, including humans, who invade their hives in order to protect their colony and its resources. Other than that, foraging bees are primarily concerned with collecting pollen and nectar and generally don’t sting unless provoked accidentally.

Bees swarm, which is part of their nature to increase the number of colonies. In the spring, the colony will produce new queens in special hive cells. When they hatch, the old queen leaves with up to half of the colony’s bees. The swarming action can be spectacular with the bees circling the hive and then moving to a nearby tree or bush. They then send Girl Scout bees to find a permanent home. Immediately before the swarm, the bees force-feed themselves with honey so that the swarm can survive for several days. Bees in a swarm are much less likely to sting, but they still can. Local beekeepers provide a swarm collection service that not only helps those who may be concerned about a nearby swarm, but also provides a source for new colonies.

Bees only sting once and then die because in the stinging process, the sting and associated organs are torn from the bee. This is why honey bees usually sting only when absolutely necessary and to protect their colony. Wasps, on the other hand, can sting multiple times and need little provocation to sting. Wasps are often confused with bees, and beekeepers may have to deal with an apparent swarm that is actually a wasp nest.

In short, bees are essential to our economy, our food production and our well-being. Bees in an urban garden could have visited from anywhere in the greater Dunedin. Bees focus on collecting nectar and pollen and are generally not interested in humans and animals unless provoked. Bees are endangered all over the world, including New Zealand, so everything should be done to support bees and beekeeping, including in urban areas. A swarm of bees can be cause for concern, but it is rare and beekeepers try to prevent it. If you see a swarm, contact the DCC, a local beekeeper or the Dunedin Beekeepers Club so that someone can remove it safely and without harming the bees.

– Brian Ellis is President of the Dunedin Beekeepers Club.


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