Harnessing the talents of bumblebees
Hastings specialist Bumblebee Hive producers Biobees began business in the mid-1990’s, born out of the need for a more cost-effective tomato pollination system.
While tomatoes grown outdoors pollinate well the move at this time to massive increases in indoor or under-cover tomato propagation presented with issues for growers.
“Because these under-cover gardens have limited air movement tomatoes won’t self-pollinate very well so the practice of hand-pollination came to the fore, but this is time-consuming and costly,” explains Biobees technical manager, Mike Sim.
Bumblebees on the other hand are buzzing pollination-machines, designed to highly efﬁciently extract and shift pollen from plant to plant.
“They also offered a much cheaper pollination option with better fruit quality and shape results – so it was a win/win,” says Mike.
Breeding commercial bumblebee hives actually began in Belgium and it didn’t take long before the technologies were being adopted overseas. That, says Mike, is the context in which Biobees began.
These days the company produces and sells its specialised hives to horticulturalists growing a range of fruits, though meeting the demand from indoor tomato growers is still a core market.
“They work well with tomatoes and blueberries for instance because Bumblebees are buzz pollinators. They grab the ﬂower, hold on and vibrate their body at high frequency. In this way they are able to extract pollen held deep down in the ﬂower.”
Mike describes Bumblebees as little work-horses, who for their relatively short life (most, apart from the Queen, live only two months or so), spend hours every day gathering pollen and nectar.
Bumblebees can also work in cooler temperatures than honeybees and are not so affected by strong wind, rain and hail netting. The Bumblebee breeding and hive development business is a niche industry in New Zealand.
With a science background, having studied entomology at university, Mike provides the technical input into the business, and helps to provide staff with the necessary Bumblebee breeding and rearing skills.
Along with continuing to supply tomato growers the uniquely packaged hives, delivered by courier to gardens all over New Zealand, are especially in demand from producers of crops that require early pollination, when the temperature is cooler.
One standard bumblebee hive will supply enough bees to cover an area of approximately 1000sqm, or about 7 hives per hectares indoors.
New advances in the use of Bumblebee hive technologies are continuing to impact positively on the market, as Mike explains.
“We’re just getting into supplying dispersing hive boxes, also known as “Flying Doctor” hives, and the way they work is ingenious.
They have a special platform at the exit where a biological control agent can be loaded to control fungal and bacterial pathogens on the plants.