Biobees Pollination Services

March 2013

An innovative company using bumble bees to supply pollination services

Biobees is New Zealand’s only specialist producer of bumblebee hives for pollination services. How it breeds, rears and dispatches bees is a testimony to the roles of beneficial insects in horticulture and agriculture.

New Zealand has four introduced species of bumblebee, brought here from England in the late 1800’s. Two are found nationwide – Bombus ruderatus and terrestris – and two only regionally – Bombus subterraneus (inland Canterbury and Otago) and Bombus hortorum (east coast South Island). They were introduced to pollinate clover, particularly red clover, but now are equally important for horticultural pollination services. Prior to that, clover seed had to be imported from the UK because NZ had no bee species which would pollinate clover. So the bumblebee introductions were the first examples of specific pollination services being introduced to NZ. Bumblebees naturally nest in dry cavities such as abandoned rodent nests, rabbit burrows, wood piles, compost heaps, under houses or in wall cavities. Colonies are much smaller than honey bees, being about 200 workers at peak size. They die down in late summer and are often destroyed by invaders such as mice, insects, mites and slaters. The founding queen dies but new queens leave the nest and over-winter in small cavities they burrow into the soil. Three ‘castes’ occur within bumblebee nests, a queen (the reproductive female), workers (non-reproductive females) and males. All three castes are broadly similar in appearance, but males can be distinguished as they lack stings and have longer antennae than the females. Females will only sting if handled roughly.

Biobees breeds the large earth bumblebee, Bombus terrestris. Techniques for year-round rearing were developed and have been used commercially in NZ since the early 1990’s. The Biobees rearing process closely matches the normal life-cycle of the bumblebee, however by providing them with favourable weather and nutrient conditions, hives can be produced on a year round basis. This enables Biobees to provide hives any week of the year, which is especially important to the glasshouse industry and means the consumer gets quality fruits and vegetables in the middle of winter.

While indoors and being developed, hives are provided with liquid food and pollen for protein (which can be stored with refrigeration). The specifics of feeding are confidential to Biobees.

Mike Sim, the company’s science advisor and entomologist, says the Bombus terrestris species in NZ is in good health with no evidence of dieback or disease. Bumblebees are not affected by varroa mite. Sim says Biobees never really had any issues with diseases. Instead, it had larger issues with sourcing pollen (and wool for insulation) that is free from chemical pesticides. Pesticides may kill the bees, or cause sublethal effects, such as behavioural changes or poorer breeding.

From time to time Biobees brings in wild queens collected around NZ, which have to be quarantined to minimize disease risk. Biobees has also supplied queens back to Europe where there has been bumblebee decline.

Each new queen does her own feeding while establishing a nest and when the first workers emerge she concentrates on laying eggs and dominating the other bees by physical and possible chemical means. One hive will build to 200 or more bees at peak and then the queens starts to decline and loses dominance as the workers become larger and more competitive. When the nest produces new reproductive bees, that hive is in numbers decline and its pollination usefulness drops off. The old queen is stung to death by new ones, who then leave and establish their own hives. The whole period of hive development and decline varies from a month or two to perhaps a year in good feeding conditions.

The largest customer is Status in Auckland, a division of Turners and Growers which is the largest hothouse producer of tomatoes in NZ, which takes 20 to 35 boxes a week all year round.

Lana Andreev, a qualified structural engineer from Russia who has lived in NZ for 19 years, has worked at Biobees since 1999 and been manager since 2002 and has learned all aspects of the care of bumblebees and managing the company on the job.

Bumblebees are efficient pollinators of many commercially grown plants. Their large size and hairy body allows for the effective collection and deposition of large quantities of pollen and good pollination increases the quality (number of seeds developed), and quantity (percentage of fruit set) of the fruit, and can be the difference between a bountiful or meagre crop.

Bumblebees visit flowers to collect pollen to feed their young, and in doing so, provide pollination services to the plants (a synergistic relationship). When a bumblebee flies it creates an electrostatic charge across its body. During a flower visit the pollen from the anther (part of a plant’s male organ) is electrostatically attracted to the hairs on the bumblebees body. When it moves from flower to flower, some of the pollen is rubbed off the bumblebee and onto the stigma (part of the plant’s female organ). Bumblebees perform buzz pollination, also known as sonication, an efficient means to extract pollen. A bumblebee grabs hold of the flower and vigorously shakes its body, using its powerful flight muscles (but not its wings). This causes the pollen to be released, sometimes in a visible cloud, and enables the bee to collect it, and to pollinate self-fertile flowers or the next flowers it visits. Buzz pollination is a vital process for high quality production of crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, raspberries and blueberries, and has benefits in many other crops too. Prior to the domestication of bumblebees, people used mechanical devices to rapidly vibrate greenhouse tomato flowers, or hormone sprays, which is still practiced in Australia, which doesn’t have bumblebees.

Bumblebees are not constrained by the same sort of weather conditions that honeybees are. Bumblebees will fly at temperatures above or around 5˚C, which is lower than honeybees, who generally require temperatures to be above 15˚C. Bumblebees will also forage on windy, low-light and overcast days, or during light drizzle, when honeybees stay at home. The larger size of the bumblebee enables them to manipulate flowers more efficiently, which means that they generally spend less time on the flower (while providing more effective pollination), and can service more flowers per hour. All this means that fewer bumblebees are required to pollinate a crop than honeybees.

Around the world about 95% of bumblebee pollination services are performed in greenhouses and Biobees believes the global trade exceeds one million hive boxes a year. The nest boxes are small and easily delivered by courier. Larger numbers of smaller hives can be spread out around large greenhouses and bumblebees are happy indoors and relatively quiescent with humans. Worker bees quickly acclimatize and begin pollination immediately. They can be returned to their boxes and sealed when spraying of the crops is required.

Commonly used in NZ for tomatoes, eggplant, courgette, capsicum, strawberry, squash and watermelon.

Bumblebees work well with honeybees, and can be employed together. Bumblebees will often pollinate while honeybees are unable to, such as during cool mornings or cloudy/rainy weather. They are very important pollinators of winter or early flowering varieties, and can be a reliable back up plan during prolonged bad spring or early summer weather.

Biobees sells hives for outdoor pollination of apple, apricot, avocado, blueberry, citrus, cherry, kiwifruit, peach and nectarine, pear and seed crops such as lucerne, onion seed, rape and sunflower.

Biobees hives come completely self contained, with no need for any ongoing maintenance. Bumblebees are provided with sufficient sugar solution to last the life of the hive, which is pre-packaged at the base of the hive box.

The hive is similar in size to a wine carton and mostly constructed out of biodegradable recycled cardboard. If it is placed outside it is essential to provide a weather proofed enclosure with an overlapping roof to keep out driving rain.

Hives need to be placed in the final position for about an hour before opening. In glass or plastic houses, it is best to open the hive when the vents are closed to prevent bumblebees from getting lost outside.

Upon opening, the bumblebees will make a short orientation flight to determine where they are and how to get back to their hive. It is important that humans don’t stand close to the hive while this is happening as it may affect the bumblebee’s sense of orientation.

Biobees guarantees that its hives will provide effective pollination for a minimum of four weeks, but if the conditions are right they may pollinate for eight weeks or more.