Story: Wasps and bees

Page 5. Introduced bees

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Honeybees

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are the familiar golden-orange and brown species, brought to New Zealand from England by settlers for honey production and plant pollination. The first documented introduction was to the Hokianga, Northland, in 1839.

Pollination and bee products

Honeybees visit more flowering plant species, including many native plants, than any other bee. They are of huge economic importance, vital for the pollination of many fruit, vegetable and seed crops, and they produce honey, beeswax, pollen, royal jelly and propolis. New Zealand’s 300,000 commercial hives produced 9,000 tonnes of honey a year on average between 2001 and 2005.

Honeybee colonies

Honeybees have a social structure within the colony or hive. Each colony has one egg-laying queen (15–20 millimetres long), a variable number of drones – all males – and many thousands of sterile female workers (11–15 millimetres long).

Workers build a regular honeycomb structure of hexagonal cells where food – nectar and pollen – is stored and larvae develop. They also gather nectar, pollen and sap, manage honey production, and feed the larvae, queen and drones.

A breakaway group of bees with a queen may swarm and form a new, feral colony. These tend to be in hollow places – tree or rock cavities, and hollow walls or ceilings of buildings.

A beekeeper’s artificial hive mimics a wild hive, but is designed to simplify the management of the bees and their honey.

Varroa mite parasite

Accidental introduction of the damaging parasite of the varroa mite (Varroa destructor) to the North Island has affected the honey industry there since 2000, and is responsible for the almost total elimination of feral honeybee colonies there. By 2006 it had spread to the South Island.

Bumblebees

Four species of bumblebee (Bombus) were introduced from England in 1885 and 1906 for pollination and seed production of red clover. Their longer tongues can reach inside red clover flowers, which the shorter-tongued honeybees cannot do – although they are excellent pollinators of the smaller white clover flowers. Bumblebees are sometimes used to pollinate greenhouse and orchard crops.

Only females (queens and workers) have a sting, but they are not aggressive and usually sting only if disturbed or handled roughly.

Bumblebee colonies

Bumblebees have a social structure, and they build nests in dry cavities – abandoned rodent nests, rabbit burrows, wood piles, compost heaps, old stuffed chairs and sofas, under houses or in walls.

The nest cells are oval or almost spherical, made in irregular horizontal layers rather than the neat combs of the honeybee. Colonies are also smaller – by January to February (summertime), there are about 200 workers in a mature colony of the large earth bumblebee (Bombus terrestris).

Nests run down in late summer and are often destroyed by invading rodents, insects, mites and slaters. The foundress queen dies, but new queens leave the old nest and overwinter in small cavities they excavate in the soil.

How to cite this page:

John Early, 'Wasps and bees - Introduced bees', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/wasps-and-bees/page-5 (accessed 27 May 2019)

Story by John Early, published 24 Sep 2007