World Bee Day celebrated by 'sizeable and growing' community of bee lovers

As beekeepers around the country celebrate World Bee Day, Kiwis are being urged to do their part to protect the vulnerable insects.

Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, creator of For The Love Of Bees, says bees are a crucial part of the food chain and without them "we would have very few things to eat". 

"They enable us to have diversity in our food," she told The AM Show on Thursday. 

"They are responsible for pollinating almost 80 percent of the things that we eat."

New Zealand has a wide variety of bees, with 27 native species, and more hives than in many other countries, says Smuts-Kennedy. However, around the world bee numbers are dropping, and with bees so important for the ecosystem steps need to be taken to protect them.

Smuts-Kennedy says one of the main focuses of For The Love Of Bees is "making sure those bees have enough flowers".

"They all need nectar and pollen, and so do all the other species they live in the ecosystem with, like butterflies and flies."

The environmental organisation also aims to educate Kiwis on how to transition away from using chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, which can be harmful to bee populations.

"Those sorts of concerns, I think, are there across the whole food industry," says Smuts-Kennedy.

The impact of those chemicals on our agricultural products made headlines earlier this year after Japan threatened to stop importing New Zealand honey due to trace levels of the weed killer glyphosate being detected in some of our exports.

Although the Ministry for Primary Industries said the low levels of the chemical didn't present any food safety issues, the incident sparked calls for the Government to rethink its position on our minimum standards around acceptable levels of glyphosate.

"We don't want to have minimum residual limits of the toxic chemicals in our honey and so it's time to get them out," says Smuts-Kennedy.

A growing appreciation for bees

World Bee Day was established by the United Nations in 2018 to raise awareness of the role bees play in keeping the planet healthy.

Karin Kos, chief executive of Apiculture New Zealand, says the number of bee lovers in New Zealand is both "sizable and growing".

“The world over people are becoming more aware of the value of bees and the vital role they play in keeping us fed and our environment thriving.  This is particularly true in New Zealand."

According to Apiculture NZ, New Zealand has 10,340 registered beekeepers, with 75 percent of those considered hobbyists, operating 10 hives or less.

Kos says this group of beekeepers has grown significantly over the past five years, up 45 percent. The number of registered beekeepers with between 11 and 50 hives has also increased by 50 percent.

She says there are various reasons for the growth.

"For many people, it comes from a desire to grow their own food, and a heightened interest in health and well-being prompted by COVID-19.  For others it's about doing something good for the environment, and then many others are just fascinated by bees and want to learn more about them."

Kos says although beekeeping is a "wonderful hobby", it's far more complex than just "putting a hive in your garden and letting the bees go for it".

"You need to know how to identify and treat for disease and pests.  Bees can travel up to 5km so if you don't look after your bees properly, they can quickly spread problems to other hives."

She said anyone interested in giving it a go is encouraged to join a local beekeeping club to find out what is actually involved before they invest in a hive.

And for bee lovers who might not be keen to become beekeepers themselves, there are other more passive ways to support the insects.

"The best thing that people can do to help bees is grow bee-friendly plants," says Kos.

"Some of the best plants for bees are gardeners' favourites like lavender, rosemary, basil as well as many pip fruit trees, citrus trees and natives like harakeke, rātā and rewarewa."