Bees and other pollinators
Bees pollinate our food crops and gardens and make us honey, so we work to keep bees and other pollinators safe. Find out how we do this, and play your part.
We protect bees and other pollinators, such as moths, butterflies, hoverflies, and birds, by setting the rules around when, how and where insecticides should be used.
These rules apply whether the insecticide is for use in your garden, or in bigger agricultural or horticultural settings. Label information is printed on all insecticides, whether you buy yours at the supermarket, garden centre or trade outlet; whether the product is ‘natural’ (for example, a derris dust or pyrethrin), or created in a laboratory.
Follow the rules to keep pollinators safe
The rules around insecticide use need to be followed to ensure the product remains effective in controlling those insects that attack our plants, yet keeps bees and other pollinators safe and free from harm.
In New Zealand strict regulations have been in place for many years around the use of insecticides that contain neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are 'systemic' insecticides.
This means they are absorbed into the plant and move inside the plant tissues to protect the entire plant from insects. They are used to control insects that can damage some fruit, ornamental, cereal, and vegetable crops. They are also used as a seed treatment in maize or cereals (which are wind-pollinated) to help crops become established.
Neonicotinoids have been available for use in New Zealand and Australia for more than 20 years. Like many chemicals, they come with risks as well as benefits. As we are New Zealand’s environmental regulator, it is our job to manage those risks.
We do this by setting rules around neonicotinoid use that include special measures solely to protect bees.
These rules include:
- No spraying near hives.
- No spraying on crops likely to be visited by bees, or when bees are foraging.
- No spraying when flowering crops or weeds are present in the treated area.
- Avoid spraying budding or flowering plants. (This restriction means users cannot use neonicotinoids on plants that are in flower, or even those that are going to flower soon.)
Most importantly, neonicotinoids must not be used on flowering crops.
Protecting our environment
We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously. We review international developments and are always on the alert for research that might indicate our New Zealand rules around the use of neonicotinoid insecticides need to be tightened. In addition, we work closely with Apiculture New Zealand to monitor the welfare of bees.
On Friday 27 April 2018, Member States endorsed the European Commission’s proposal to partially ban three neonicotinoid insecticides based on the risk assessments presented by EFSA in February 2018.
The outdoor use of three neonicotinoid insecticides - clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam has been completely banned. Seeds treated with these substances would be allowed to be used in permanent greenhouses and only if the resulting crop stayed within a permanent greenhouse for its entire lifecycle.
It is expected that the Commission will adopt these Regulations in the coming months.
Keeping watch over Aotearoa
We require applicants seeking approval for a new substance, such as a neonicotinoid, to provide robust data about its composition and proposed use. We also demand a high level of scientific evidence about its safety and effect before considering whether or not to approve it.
In June 2014, we declined an application for a seed treatment that contained a neonicotinoid because the applicant was unable to demonstrate that it could be used in a way that would provide sufficient protection to people and the environment.
If a neonicotinoid is approved for use, we continue to monitor international developments and the latest available research to keep up to date with information in connection with it. We also keep in contact with key stakeholders concerned about the wellbeing of pollinators.
If there was a growing body of evidence that a neonicotinoid insecticide was causing harm in New Zealand, or if an overseas regulator banned a neonicotinoid, we could reassess it, to see if it should continue to be used here. A reassessment can result in an approval being cancelled or having more strict rules placed on how, where and when the neonicotinoid might be used.
Tell us about suspected pollinator poisoning incidents
Report an incident
We gather reports about suspected pollinator poisoning incidents from around New Zealand and we send them to the OECD's (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Pollinator Incidents Information System.
To report an incident, complete our online form.
Read our factsheet for more information about suspected beehive or pollinator poisoning incidents and a list of the symptoms of pesticide or chemical exposure in honey bees.
Further investigation of an incident
If you would like further investigation into an incident, you need to contact the right agency:
For incidents relating to pesticide spraying in the workplace, contact WorkSafe New Zealand.
For incidents relating to non-workplace spraying, contact your local council.
If you are considering laboratory testing to find out if your hive was exposed to chemicals, make sure you collect fresh samples (bees near death or recently dead, and the honey or wax) and store them in a freezer while you arrange for testing.
Why we report incidents to the OECD
The OECD is a place where governments from 36 industrialised countries around the world work together to find solutions for shared problems. In 2014, the OECD set up the Pollinator Incidents Information System for collecting and sharing information quickly and consistently between countries about incidents that may be potentially linked to pesticides. Together these reports may help governments across the world make the best decisions for protecting our bees and other pollinators.
As an OECD member country, New Zealand introduced this system to monitor the situation here and we're responsible for reporting pollinator incidents back to the OECD.
Participating in reporting these incidents to the OECD will allow us to compare what’s happening in New Zealand with other countries, to work out whether we need to take a different course of action to ensure our pollinators are protected.
Impact of hazardous substances on bee health
This information is also available in our 2017 HSNO Monitoring Report.
The following draws on data from Landcare Research New Zealand. Since 2015, the Ministry for Primary Industries has contracted Landcare Research to conduct an annual survey of New Zealand's managed honey bee colonies. In 2016, Landcare Research undertook a New Zealand Colony Loss and Survival Survey (NZ COLOSS), which sought to quantify colony losses over winter 2016. It also sought to provide baseline data for monitoring bee health over time, and to investigate emerging challenges for the apiculture industry and industries that rely on pollination services. The survey was not intended to diagnose Colony Collapse Disorder or Colony Depopulation Syndrome in New Zealand.
The NZ COLOSS survey was administered to beekeepers online. Some 2,179 beekeepers responded to the survey and the information collected covered 275,356 hives. This represents 38 percent of all beekeepers and 40 percent of all New Zealand production colonies. The survey questionnaire was based on a standardised survey that has been conducted in 31 countries, although it was adapted to address issues of particular concern to New Zealand.
Losses due to pesticides, plant toxins, and other pathogens and pests are difficult to diagnose. Therefore, the NZ COLOSS follows the established international practice of asking beekeepers to report on symptoms to help distinguish cases of starvation from those of exposure to toxins or particular diseases.
Data source: Landcare Research New Zealand prepared from the Ministry for Primary Industries. 2016. New Zealand Colony Loss and Survival Survey (NZ COLOSS).
It is estimated that New Zealand’s hive losses during the winter of 2016 survey was 9.8 percent, which is significantly lower than losses reported in many other countries where similar surveys are undertaken (average of 17 percent winter hive losses in the northern hemisphere).
Some colony loss is expected over winter due to lack of food and poor foraging weather, bees being too weak to survive the cold, or bee health being compromised by pests and diseases or environmental factors. A hive loss of 10 to 13 percent winter loss in considered normal in New Zealand.
Cause of hive loss
Beekeepers reported that 46.3 percent of hive losses were attributed to colony death. This represents four percent of total hives covered in the survey. There are two distinct indicators for discerning the probable causes of colony death:
- The presence of dead worker bees in the cells with no food present in the hive is indicative of starvation. Thirty-seven percent of hives attributed to colony death showed signs of starvation. Colonies are commonly weakened during pollen and nectar scarcity and during bad weather, however, these problems may be mitigated by supplementary feeding of sugar and protein as well as avoiding the overcrowding of apiary sites.
- The presence of many dead bees in or in front of the hive is indicative of toxic exposure from environmental toxins such as pesticides. Thirty-one percent of hives that were reported as being dead had dead bees in or in front of the hive, indicative of acute toxic exposure.
One method employed by beekeepers overseas to mitigate the chronic load of toxins embedded inside the hives is to replace wax brood combs with new foundation. This approach may be increasingly important as Varroa mite treatments inside hives are used long term. Removing the old wax brood combs reduces the exposure of the colony to chemicals either brought into the hive by the bees (for example, pesticides) or by the bee keeper (for example, Varroa mite treatments). When chronic exposure is decreased, the overall health of the colony is assumed to be higher compared to chronically exposed colonies.
The second major cause of hive loss is problems associated with queen bees, in particular, drone-laying queens (queens that lay unfertilised eggs which result in drones (males)), and the absence of a queen, or the death of the queen.
Survey respondents attributed 11.7 percent of the hive losses, on average, to wasps. Wasps invade and kill weak colonies. These losses are heavily concentrated in the North Island. Widespread infestations of the giant willow aphid have contributed to increasing populations of wasps that feed on the honeydew produced by these aphids. With an increased wasp population, hives are more likely to be exploited by wasps.
In 2006, we approved Vespex, a protein bait targeted at wasps, which contains the commonly-used insecticide fipronil. The bait was piloted on five public conservation land sites in 2015 and was found to reduce wasp activity by more than 95 percent. Unlike other products, the Vespex formulation is not attractive to bees, so there are no unintended negative impacts to bee health. Wider use of this product could be beneficial to the apicultural industry, reducing the wasp population and hence colony or production loss due to wasp invasions.
Varroa mite in New Zealand
In the past, Varroa mite significantly contributed to winter hive loss. Without treatment, most hives die within six months of being infected. The Varroa mite arrived in the North Island in 2000 and spread to the South Island in 2006, resulting in more frequent hive losses and increased labour and control costs.
Commercial operators across all regions rely mostly on two synthetic chemical treatments to control Varroa: flumethrin (EPA-approved in 2001) and amitraz (EPA-approved in 2006). Organic treatments, particularly thymol which was approved by the EPA in 2015, are often used by non-commercial beekeepers.
Management practices for farmers
There are a variety of management practices that farmers can do to reduce the risk of a honey bee poisoning event. This includes:
- Reducing the need for chemical use by adopting integrated pest management principles where appropriate.
- Contacting the owners of any hives in the area well before spraying, so that they have an opportunity to relocate or protect their hives. Also consider owners of hives on adjacent properties, bearing in mind that bees commonly forage within a five-kilometre radius, sometimes further
- If using spray contractors, tell them the location of any hives that may be affected and ensure that they understand the importance of reducing the risk of honeybee poisoning
- Reading and always complying with the chemical product label
- Choosing appropriate spraying conditions to avoid the chance of spray drift affecting non-target flowering crops, hives, and water
- Ensuring that bees are not foraging in the target area. (This is a condition of some product labels.) This may include bees from hives located on nearby properties, and feral bees as well. Remember, poisoning bees reduces future pollination potential.
- Mowing flowering weeds inside the target area to reduce the damage to bees that may otherwise forage there
- Talking to your agronomist and apiarist to help select chemicals that pose a low risk to bees, whilst still achieving the required outcome for your business.