New bumblebee research could help protect sustainability of horticulture industry

The project recently received funding from MPI.
The project recently received funding from MPI. Photo credit: Supplied

A new research project is investigating if it's possible to extend the life of bumblebee hives - something that could help protect the long-term sustainability of the country's horticulture industry. 

Because of their importance in pollinating crops, bumblebees play a crucial role for both the horticulture industry and food production in general.

The new project - led by Dr Gunjan Gera of Gourmet Waiuku Limited and supported by consultant Dr Jo Stephens - will look at the feasibility of using pheromones to make hives live longer and be more efficient.

Dr Gera said queen bumblebees in commercial hives generally live around eight to 10 weeks before they die. Although in species like honeybees the hives will continue to survive after the death of the queen, that is not the case for bumblebees.

"What happens for honeybees is that when the queen dies, one of the daughters takes over. But in bumblebees, when the queen dies, the hive dies," Dr Gera said.

She said bumblebee hives can also appear less active compared to those of honeybees, as due to "fewer worker bees... there can be variation in vigour and productiveness".

Bumblebees are often used for pollination in berryfruit crops, glasshouses and other covered crop areas because compared to honeybees, which fly further afield, they tend to travel shorter distances and don't mind enclosed spaces, said Dr Gera.

She said bees were immensely important to food production because of their role as pollinators.

"The idea is if bees die, we are going to die as well, because they pollinate most of the crops that we eat."

The project, which began in October, is aiming to use pheromones to extend the life of bumblebee hives to at least 12-18 weeks. To do so, the researchers will study various factors and compounds in conjunction with bumblebee queens.

"If this works, we have a way of complementing nature, using a pheromone substitute," said Dr Gera.

The three-year project has just received $160,000 towards its total costs of $400,000 from the Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI)  Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund.

Dr Stephens said the project will also screen bumblebees for diseases, particularly those associated with inbreeding.

Because bumblebees are an introduced species, originally arriving with early pioneers from the UK, they have limited genetic diversity. That means their gene pool is relatively small.

"We'll be looking at the levels of inbreeding in New Zealand populations to see if this is a major concern, and whether we need to consider the possibility of importing bumblebee genetics," said Dr Stephens.

MPI investment programmes director Steve Penno said if successful, the project could enhance the productivity of bumblebee hives markedly, which would lead to "better pollination for growers - which means high yields and better quality produce".