Much of the South Island of New Zealand has been in the grip of record-breaking drought
conditions, in places similar conditions have not occurred in the last hundred years. Bush fires
are causing a lot of damage and virtually permanent Fire Co-ordination centres have been set
up the risks remain so high. Here in the North the weather has remained at or near normal,
possibly a little wetter, and water supplies remain good although some Bay of Plenty water
supplies may be restricted, due, I think, to an inability to forecast the demand new irrigation
systems for the orchards have placed on the system. In the drought areas, ironically, the
stations using irrigation systems may be having the most difficult time. Water supplies have
been reduced or stopped in much of the South, and whereas the un-irrigated land users have
contingency plans in place, (beet fodder crops or whatever) the others do not. Even up here
though, as a normal routine, outdoor fires require a local authority permit (or several!) and
forestry areas are covered in signs, big dials indicating the current state of risk on any
particular day. Our smokers are always plugged when travelling, for this purpose we use two
plastic cell-grafting cups, one green and one black. The green one is trimmed to fit into the
smoker nozzle and smothers the fire completely, the black one is trimmed and cut in the side
to create a small airway which should (usually) permit enough airflow to just keep it alight
going from one site to the next, but not allow any sparks to escape. If you don't believe
sparks come out of your smoker try using it at night and it'll look like a flame thrower. Gas
barbeques of all kinds are the norm in New Zealand, it's not just laziness; anything else would
require a fire permit.
The main honey crop will be removed now and so the next few weeks will be pretty routine.
The only difference on this occasion is that we will collect some of the (queenless) blown
bees to use as cell-starters for queen rearing - giving them the grafted cells to start. This is a
bit of a puzzle, and it will be interesting to see how it develops. The longest day of the year
has past, day lengths, and brood nests, are visibly shortening. Colonies with eight frames of
brood have packed down to four or five, and packed down with plenty of stored pollen and
nectar, as they would prior to winter. What I expect is to see a prolonged period of 'autumn
supercedure', but don't forget, new queens have to be mated. The curious thing will be to
see how drones are maintained. Right now there are plenty, not least because inserting
drone comb forms part of our varroa control programme. The rewarewa we took off in last month has been extracted, and we have collected the first of the honey for delivering to our buyer. We went over in two trucks to collect 16 drums, each drum containing around 300kg. I have described the crop removal before so it gives me a chance to write about some of the other things we find at our hives, other than bees and honey!
When I returned from the Christmas break (the only one 'on duty') I had been left a message to tell me about thirty main colonies that had been moved off one of our sites because of the threat from wasps. It's hard to believe a main colony occupying three langstroth boxes would be threatened, but here in New Zealand the weather is so benign that the (imported) wasp colonies can forage year round, in fact, many don't die over winter and can become large, multiple queen, colonies. I think this site had also suffered because so many of the boxes were substandard and
provided lots of big entrances for the wasps to enter. Apparently, before they were moved
away, very few bees were flying; they were all clustered around every possible entrance point
to defend the colony and few could be spared for foraging duties. Moving them off had saved
a lot of the colonies, but so many wasps had gone with the hives that they had set up home
on just about every other hive, with (broodless) wasp nests hang from the eves as in the
photo, or formed between adjacent boxes. It certainly isn't a phenomenon we've ever seen
before; we were unaware wasps would construct nests in the absence of their queen. The
wasps had taken their toll. Of the thirty, five had been killed outright and robbed bare, and
another four were queenless, the slow moving queen no doubt being an easy feast for the
As a rule. marsupials don't appear very likely to be found in an apiary, and as a rule, it's a good one. We're used to finding rabbits sheltering, or even burrowing, beneath the hives, but how about a possum. Possums in New Zealand, unlike those in Australia, are considered vermin and all the ones seen dead on the roads (they out number the rabbits and birds because they are a bit slower!) aren't mourned by anyone. The sale of possum fur garments, socks, hats, scarves, pullovers and so on, is encouraged as a conservation measure, as possums out-compete or endanger some of the flora and fauna unique to NZ. While they are familiar sights when they are dead, being largely nocturnal one doesn't expect to find one alive, and basking in the warm sunny pasture next to a hive! Catching this one turned out to be easier than we thought, they have long sharp claws for climbing; it did us a favour too by choosing an escape route that led to a swarm resting on a fence post that had gone unnoticed.
Next to bees, I think the most abundant insects we see near the hives are cockroaches. They don't spend any time in the hives, although they are completely safe from any thing a honeybee could do, but linger under or between the boxes, or, a favourite spot, between a telescopic lid and its cover board. Open the few of our hives that still use these lids, especially if they stand on a dry concrete or tarmac surface, and they will scuttle off as fast as they can, sometimes up your sleeve or trouser leg, easily though any gap you might consider bee-proof. Someone else who uses the same spot are geckos, occasionally they will sit tight and hope their camouflage pays off, but more often they're off as soon at the lid lifts. Both are assisted by small entrances left in the crown board/cover board that are there to allow any bees left on the top of the board after a colony inspection to escape. Another unusual visitor is the weta. These huge insects lived in the
original Gondwanaland land mass and pre-date dinosaurs. New Zealand has retained the greatest collection of wetas anywhere in the world. They are quite long-lived, fully grown after eighteen months, but the introduction of predators such as rats, cats, and hedgehogs has resulted in a sharp increase in the rate of predation. Add to that the habitat destruction caused by humans, and introduced browsing animals, like the possum, which are responsible for killing off tree fauna used by some weta species, and you have another group on the endangered lists. The one pictured above, on a hive lid, is probably one of the more common species, an Auckland tree weta, (I'm no great expert on weta morphology) which have a black head and quite large jaws. They are omnivorous insects, feeding on vegetation and other insects, but as far as I know don't do any damage to honeybee colonies. The house sparrows, which live here in great numbers, are much more dangerous to bees, they sit on the hive roofs and pick of bees struggling on the grass on the landing board and feed them to their young. They can, and do, cause the loss of newly mated queens at queen rearing time.
Another common inhabitant of the apiaries, on and around the hive, unsurprisingly, are spiders. Very few spiders in New Zealand are poisonous, the Katipo is the only native species, which is now so rare entomologists probably look forward to being bitten, particularly as it's painfull but not life threatening. Its anti-venom is commonly available. One or two others have found their own way over the Tasman in recent years, primarily the whitetail, a species that might cause a trip to the medical centre. They are now very common around homes and gardens, and scarcely a week goes by without us seeing them around the hives. They are a hunting species, hunting other spiders around the hives and houses. They scout around at night and then look for a hiding place when daylight arrives. A common place might be in the folds of a T-shirt discarded on the floor for example, which is how bites often arise. We know to look out for them under lids, or in handholds, but they are usually making for the nearest exit when we see them. The bite is about as painful as a wasp or bee sting, and there might be little or no reaction, or it could require a treatment with antibiotics. The advice has been to go and see the medical staff only if the bite or any ulcerations fail to heal, or become infected. While the spider's venom doesn't seem too dangerous, the bacteria and bacterial toxins injected as it bites can cause trouble. The great fear is that the bite could be necrotising (because of the bacteria injected), but as far as I've be able to tell so far, no such case has been proven, and people bitten come to no great harm. The truth is, despite this spider's nasty reputation, its victims cause their own injuries simply by not caring for the wound. So, despite all the hype, New Zealand still doesn't really have any dangerous animals to worry about, or at least, only the species holding the possum!