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Apiculture New Zealand Conference 2017

Written by Gertje Petersen PHD Student, Abacusbio

 

Working on a postgraduate degree in industry comes with its unique chances and challenges.

One of them is the chance to interact with the people that are ultimately going to benefit from your research, both to try and understand their needs and to communicate what you are working on.

I recently attended the Apiculture New Zealand conference for the second time.

Last year, I was “sneaked” into the program for a part of my PhD supervisor’s 30 minute talk. This year, I was presenting by myself, with my name on the program in two places.

I had just returned from an animal breeding and genetics conference in Townsville, Australia, where I presented my postgraduate work to a panel of my peers for the first time, but this was the conference that meant more to me.

The goal of my PhD is to design a breeding program for honeybees in a commercial environment, so talking to beekeepers is part of my job, and spending three days with 1,300 people interested in beekeeping was a prime opportunity to do so.

 

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Source: Apiculture NZ

New Zealand beekeeping has undergone some quite dramatic changes in the past few years, and Apiculture NZ was formed in 2016 as a result. It is an umbrella organisation that, for the first time, incorporates not just beekeepers but all bee-related industries, such as honey processors and -exporters.

One of the reasons for these changes is the rather curious tale of a Welsh biochemist who moved to New Zealand in the ’70s and begun investigating the antimicrobial activity of a certain kind of honey in 1981.

Dr Peter Molan found honey from the “tea tree” shrub Leptospermum scoparium, known as Mānuka in Te Reo Māori, the tongue of the native people of New Zealand, to possess non-peroxide antimicrobial activity. This sets it apart from other honeys. Dr Molan’s research set off a marketing scheme that successfully promoted Mānuka honey for its health benefits and carried the idea of New Zealand honey as a premium product far beyond the island nation’s borders.

This put the New Zealand beekeeping industry in a unique position: Here, honey is worth enough to dictate the prices of pollination services, not the other way around.

With the growing global need for insect pollination, this has become rare, because honeybees are the only insects humans can manage enough to provide to orchards on a large scale. This means that the main economic drivers behind a flourishing beekeeping industry are often pollination fees, not honey prices.

New Zealand’s beekeepers, however, can rely on high prices for Mānuka honey as well as other honey types.

Given diligent management of their hives, commercial beekeepers can make enough money to be able to invest into research and development.

 

And this is where I come in.

My research is a vital stepping stone in breeding honeybees to better match our needs and the specific challenges that they are facing. For this, we need to understand both sides of the medal, the bees as well as the beekeepers.

To keep my work grounded in practical beekeeping, I have the fortune of working directly with the amazing Taylor Pass Honey Company, which allows me a glimpse into the needs and problems of a honey producer.

But honey producers are not the only ones who have a stake in improving our bees, and New Zealand has an incredible range of different environments for honeybees to cope with, ranging from the rugged South Island hinterlands to the manicured orchards and vineyards of regions like Hawke’s Bay.

In order to truly improve New Zealand’s honeybee stocks, we need to understand all of these different systems and requirements, and how we can work with people on the ground to improve them.

The beekeeping conference is where I can get a better understanding of what challenges others face or perceive.

This is where we can come together and work towards a more sustainable way to address issues such as stress resistance and susceptibility to disease by actually improving our bees themselves.

But, genetic improvement is a long-term game, and in an industry as young as the beekeeping industry, it requires considerable up-front investments. Luckily, it is becoming increasingly clear that there are some operators that are willing to take the leap and provide applied scientists like myself with the information and funds we need to in turn help them.

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Source: Apiculture NZ

Working in such a driven and quickly expanding industry is incredibly exciting, and I feel truly blessed that I have ended up where I have, doing what I do.

Getting to do so surrounded by such an amazing place as New Zealand ends up being an unexpected bonus.