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This article originally appeared in Bee Biz. Cliff Van Eaton is an apicultural consultant. He can be contacted at cliff@comvita.com.


Pan-Pacific Bees

Cliff Van Eaton
Tauranga, New Zealand

It's 11 o'clock in the morning, and the Air Pacific/Canadian Airlines code share flight is going through final preparations before its departure from Auckland International Airport in New Zealand.

The several hundred people on board have settled into their seats, and the pilot has just informed them that as soon as some last minute baggage is put in the hold they will be under way on their 8 hour flight to Honolulu.

What the passengers don't realise, however, is that they will be sharing their flight with an extremely valuable (if somewhat unusual) consignment of premium New Zealand livestock 637 one kilogram packages of honey bees. And like many of the other passengers, the bees are actually going to change planes in Honolulu and continue their journey for another 5 hour flight to Vancouver, British Columbia.

All in all, the bees will travel by air some 11,000 kilometres, from the Southern Hemisphere autumn to the Northern Hemisphere spring, in just over 15 hours. In another 12 hours, they will be in southern Alberta, ready to take up residence as colonies destined to pollinate canola and produce a big crop of grade A Canadian honey.

Timing is everything

As the cargo lifter puts the well-constructed (and double safety-protected) pallet of packages into the hold of the 767, the beekeeper in charge of the consignment, Steve Weenink, can finally pause, take a deep breath, and think back on what has been a very intense 2 days.

For Steve, owner of Apiflora NZ Ltd, one of the most successful beekeeping businesses in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty, the pallet of bees represents the culmination of efforts by a range of people, including 15 beekeepers supplying bulk bees, 12 more supplying queen bees, one crew that puts the bees into the packages, and another that assembles the package materials and pallet.

The whole thing takes military-like precision and timing, as well as the upmost care and attention to detail. Scheduled passenger flights across the Pacific don't wait for late baggage, and a pallet of 10 million bees can perish in as little as 3 minutes if something goes wrong and they over-heat.

A honey bee refuge on the other side of the world

Back in 1987, I wrote an article for an American beekeeping magazine describing queen rearing and package bee production in New Zealand. In the article I suggested that with the coming threats to North American beekeeping (at that time varroa, tracheal mite and Africanised bees), New Zealand was well-placed to be a source of disease-free, genetically uncontaminated honey bees.

In the years since, varroa has ravaged much of the worlds temperate climate beekeeping, and while tracheal mite and the Africanised bee have so far not quite lived up to predictions as gravely serious threats, beekeepers in a number of countries have nevertheless looked to New Zealand for replacement stocks of bees and queens.

New Zealand's geographic isolation in the South Pacific, its well-developed commercial beekeeping industry, and its dedication to strict agricultural quarantine and bee disease surveillance and control programmes, have all contributed to making New Zealand bee stocks attractive to beekeepers in such far-flung destinations as Canada, Korea, Israel, Germany, France, Thailand, Iran, and the Pacific Islands.

New Zealand is fortunate to still be free of most of the major bee diseases that plague other parts of the world, and is making significant inroads into American foulbrood (in the last 7 years, AFB incidence has decreased on average by 12% per annum, to a low in 1998 of 0.38% of hives). The country really has become one of the last refuges of low disease impact beekeeping anywhere.

Quality and cooperation: the keys to success

As a beekeeping advisor, what I have enjoyed most about the growth of the New Zealand bee export trade is seeing enthusiastic commercial beekeepers working together to learn the new skills required to supply this world market, and especially watching them apply the same dedication to quality and service that they have developed in other aspects of their enterprises.

A case in point is the group of beekeepers who work together supplying Steve Weenink, and his business partner James Ward, owner of Kintail Honey in the southern North Island. Steve and James run 7500 hives between them, but they also rely on a number of other North Island beekeepers, and even some South Island ones, to supply product for their export bee venture.

Steve was a founding member of the Kiwifruit Pollination Association (KPA), and is currently the groups president. The association is made up of over 30 beekeepers in the Bay of Plenty who are dedicated to providing quality pollination services to the regions world-famous kiwifruit industry.

Beekeepers in the KPA have developed a reputation for producing tens of thousands of quality bee hives to strict hive strength criteria, and working together with kiwifruit growers to maximise production of what is a very difficult fruit to pollinate (kiwifruit flowers don't produce nectar, and an export fruit generally requires about 1500 seeds).

With this understanding of the need for quality and prompt service, and looking for additional income opportunities after the spring pollination period, it seemed only natural for Steve and his KPA mates to get together with James to develop the export market for package bees.

The business initially began with James, who was approached by a Canadian beekeeper to supply a trial shipment of packages. The next year, small shipments went to both Canada and Korea. By the following year, orders expanded to the point that James had to look to other beekeepers to help him meet the demand.

For James, the choice of Steve and his fellow kiwifruit pollination beekeepers was obvious. I needed people who could handle the pressure of meeting deadlines, while at the same time doing the little things right that count for so much in package production. I knew the guys who were already doing a quality job in pollination were the ones I wanted to work with.

With associates who were keen to take up new opportunities, and knowing that quality and service to customers are the most important factors in whatever business you do, the group couldn't go wrong. In the last two years, Kintail/Apiflora has been the largest exporter of package bees from New Zealand, sending over 40 pallets to Canada, Germany and Korea.

Package bees step-by-step

To see how all the various links in the package bee chain fit together, lets follow the production and shipping process, from beehives on one side of the world to beehives on the other.

Orders are taken by James and Steve well in advance of the production season. They work closely with clients in the overseas country, and also visit customers at least once during the beekeeping year.

The next step is to book air space, which certainly takes some juggling. Not every flight from New Zealand is suitable. US officials require package consignments to only be on flights through Honolulu that land during the hours of darkness. The other route to Canada is to tranship through Seoul.

Once the shipping dates are set, James and Steve meet with their beekeeper suppliers, and set a schedule for the kilograms of bees each is to provide. They also place orders with queen producers all around New Zealand to ensure that enough newly mated queens are available ahead of time for each pallet.

In the weeks prior to the supply date, the beekeeper suppliers are hard at work preparing their hives. They also clear their apiaries with government agricultural officials. The apiculture officers at AgriQuality New Zealand provide this service, ensuring that the apiaries meet the importing country's requirements regarding bee disease control. As well, the apiaries are sampled as part of New Zealand's surveillance programme for exotic bee diseases (those diseases such as varroa and tracheal mite that are not present in New Zealand).

At the same time, James begins work on obtaining the required export certificates from AgriQuality New Zealand and the Regulatory Authority of the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. James is particularly grateful for the help he has received from staff in both organisations, and says that without their assistance Kintail/Apiflora would never have been able to access new export markets and overcome problems in existing ones.

On the scheduled supply date, beekeepers from around the Bay of Plenty and Waikato regions go out to their designated apiaries and shake bees from the hives. The beekeepers take care to leave enough bees to carry the hive through the mild New Zealand winter. They also put the bees through a queen excluder to ensure the hives don't go queenless in the process.

The bees (now called bulk bees) are put into carriers composed of supers that are stacked and strapped together 3 or 4 high, with screens on the top and bottom to provide ventilation. The supers are partially empty, but do contain several well-spaced frames that are fastened into the rebates to keep them from falling through. The frames provide a clustering space for the bees, and the honey in the frames gives the bees an essential food .source necessary to sustain them until they are put into the packages.

Back at the Kintail/Apiflora shed, staff are busy assembling the packages and preparing the queens. The packages are based on the well-known rectangular, wooden package used in North America, but are constructed of thick cardboard to reduce shipping weight.

At the same time, staff check each queen destined to be put in the packages. The queens are removed from their previous mailing cages, examined to ensure they are not damaged, and then put into a fresh cage ready for the arrival of the bulk bees.

In the late afternoon, the beekeepers who have been shaking the bulk bees begin to arrive at the Kintail/Apiflora shed. The bulk bee carriers are first weighed to establish a gross weight, and are then put into a production line where the straps are undone and each super is carefully removed so as not to dislodge the clinging bees. The carriers will be weighed again later, once the bees have been taken out, and the beekeepers will be paid for the kilograms of bees that are used.

Each super of bees is then shaken over a metal hopper. The bees slide through this hopper and into a wire mesh shaker box with a trap door. Once several carriers have been shaken, the hopper is passed to the next stage where the bees are put into the individual packages.

Interestingly, Steve takes on this pivotal job himself. Shaking out over 300 packages in less than two hours is back-breaking work, but Steve believes it is essential that he is in a position to ensure that each and every package exceeds the 1 kg bee weight specification. To do this, he picks up the shaker box that is full of bees, opens the trap door and shakes bees into a small holder cone. The cone is then weighed on a digital scale, and topped up again if necessary.

Once the cone has passed the weighing test, it goes to the next stage where the bees are dumped into the package. A feed container is then put into the circular hole and the cage containing the queen is hung from a slot next to the feed hole. The feed is a special sugar and agar solution that James and Steve make up. Normal sugar syrup in an upturned can doesn't work on airlines, because the pressure changes cause the can to leak.

When all of the bulk bees have been shaken into packages, the packages are transferred to a large coolstore used at other times of the year for kiwifruit. The bees are chilled over night, which puts them into cluster. The whole process is then repeated the next day to produce the remaining packages needed to make up the final consignment.

Making sure there's no leaks

The next day a dedicated crew works in the coolstore to assemble the individual packages into a Full load, using an aluminium aircraft pallet of proper dimension to fit inside a Boeing 767. Half of the crew are quality control people, who laboriously check each package to ensure there are no holes or defects that can leak bees in either the plastic mesh or the cardboard.

Groups of 3 packages, spread apart to give the clusters adequate ventilation, are then put on thee pallet, creating layers. Each layer is stapled together right around the pallet, and to the layer below. Once the final layer is complete, cardboard moulding is stapled around all the corners and diagonally to provide further support and rigidity.

When the pallet is fully assembled, a large plastic mesh sleave is put over the whole consignment. The sleave provides a second barrier for bee leakage if any of the packages should develop a hole while in transit. Lastly, an air cargo net is draped over the consignment and attached all around the aircraft pallet.

Early the next morning, Steve drives the pallet to Auckland. The pallet is protected from the wind and any rain by a removable truck panel, with drop-down sides. The temperature of the bees in the pallet is continuously monitored in the truck cab by Steve via a remote control thermostat.

Cool bees are live bees

When the pallet arrives at the United Airlines Air Cargo terminal in Auckland, a freight forwarder takes over. The freight forwarder is in charge of handling all the shipping formalities, and also makes sure the bees don't over-heat prior to take off. The bees are moved into the air cargo coolstore, and 100 kg of dry ice is put on the top of the pallet. The ice will help keep the consignment cool right through to Honolulu.

Its at this juncture that the consignment is checked by an Agricultural Quarantine official. The New Zealand government cooperates with USDA officials and the Hawaiian state government on a Code of Practice for the Transhipment of Bees through the USA. The New Zealand official checks the pallet thoroughly for the possibility of leaks. The official also accompanies the consignment out to the plane, and destroys any alighting bees from the neighbourhood that might be attracted to the pheromones the packages give off. Hitchhiker bees are definitely not allowed!

At last the call comes from the ground crew, and the pallet is taken out to the plane. While the pallet is on its way, a truck with a refrigeration unit is brought up to the plane, and a large hose is put into the hold. The truck produces cold air that is blown into the hold in preparation for the bees. This last element is essential, because if the hold is too warm. the bees in the pallet may panic, start to fan their wings, and at the same time produce carbon dioxide. If this happens, the whole pallet can asphyxiate.

The Honolulu Connection

The next important step takes place on the runway at the Honolulu airport, just before dawn. USDA officials are there to meet the pallet, and stay with it until it is transferred to the hold of the Canadian Pacific DC10 bound for Vancouver. The officials check the pallet for leaking bees, and also have an emergency kit of bee nets and foam on hand just in case the consignment is damaged during the move from one plane to the other.

Finally, after another flight, the pallet arrives in Vancouver, where it is cleared by Canadian Customs and Agricultural Quarantine officials, and passed on to a waiting Canadian beekeeper, who loads it onto a waiting panel truck quite similar to Steve's. From there, its another half day drive through the many mountains and valleys of British Columbia, and then on to the plains of southern Alberta or Saskatchewan.

The mesh covers are removed, the pallet is disassembled, and then the individual packages are taken out into apiaries where they are put into one super hives that have been made up ahead of time. The hives contain empty brood comb and a food source (either sugar syrup or honey or both).

The magic that is package bees

Now the real work begins. One kilogram of bees and a queen plus a good Western Canadian spring result 10 weeks later in a strong two super hive capable of producing 60kg of honey, a figure that is close to the Canadian average, the highest yield per beehive of any country in the world. The secret, of course, is the long day length in the Canadian summer and some of the best floral sources found anywhere. That. and a whole lot of busy New Zealand bees.

Most people are unaware of this amazing trans-hemisphere trade in buzzing livestock and how important it is for many beekeepers in both New Zealand and Canada. And of course, most people don't know very much about honey bees. For the uninitiated, these resilient and resourceful creatures really do seem capable of magic. Beekeepers, on the other hand, can often appear to take the bees work for granted.

However, when it comes to bees flying across the Pacific, and making yields of honey that most beekeepers can only dream of, who knows, maybe magic is the right word for it after all!