New Zealand’s fruit and vegie growers have a new best friend. And he has an awesome nose.
For decades, honeybees have been New Zealand’s top crop pollinators. But with the arrival of the varroa mite, and a burgeoning manuka honey industry pushing up the price of honeybee pollination services, fruit and vegie growers are looking to other options.
"The cost for hiring honeybees has increased so much we think it's time to find a second managed pollinator species for growers in New Zealand,” explains Dr David Pattemore, pollination scientist and New Zealand's Plant & Food Research.
Enter Ollie, a young canine with awesome olfactory powers and Pattermore's trusty companion. Together, they're working with Plant & Food Research to seek out bumblebee queens and discover what might make them want to relocate.
Game of drones
Burly, varroa-mite-resistant bumblebees, able to transport hefty loads even in wild weather, would make ideal managed pollinators. But if growers are to harness their services, they need to get bumblebee queens on board.
“Our initial aim is to just make a bumblebee box that queens like to nest in,” says Pattemore. So far, so simple. But to make these new homes ‘fit for queens’, Pattemore and his team must find out what bumblebee queens like.
That means locating their nests, investigating what goes on in those nests, and using the knowledge to build ‘bumblebee bunkers’ so appealing they convince queens (and their colonies) to move in.
The more queens and their nests Ollie can sniff out, the more data researchers will have to help make the perfect ‘bumblebee bunker’.
Pattemore has some work to do to help the eight-month-old pup hone his bumblebee-nest tracking skills. But already, he’s shaping up to be the unlikely hero of New Zealand’s horticulture sector.
5 good reasons to use bumblebees
Around two-thirds of the world’s fruit and vegie crops require pollination by animals, particularly honeybees. But with varroa mite incursion and colony collapse disorder (CCD) devastating honeybee populations worldwide, relying on honeybees to pollinate crops is pricey – and risky – business.
Bumblebees, members of the bee genus Bombus, family Apidae, seem like perfect candidates for the alternate-pollinator role, in NZ and, potentially Tasmania:
- they’re bigger, fuzzier and tougher than honeybees;
- they fly better in windy and rainy conditions (we’re talking New Zealand!);
- they’re not susceptible to varroa mite;
- though most of the planet’s 250-odd species of bumblebee live in the Northern Hemisphere, they’re also common in the NZ and Tasmania; and
- as one bumblebee can do the work of up to 50 honeybees, they’re far more cost-effective pollinators than their smaller, shakier brethren.
(could Tasmanian farmers also use honeybees to pollinate their crops?)