Organic beekeeping in New Zealand

Organic food is made without using chemical pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics or other artificial chemicals during production. Organic fruit growers don’t spray their trees or vines, using natural methods to control insects on their produce. Organic meat and dairy farmers don’t use antibiotics or artificial hormones to speed up animal growth. For many proponents, the organic concept extends into the overall management of the farm or orchard as well – they tend to take a slower, natural approach to crop or animal management, with a focus on caring for their charges rather than profit.

Although organic beekeeping may be more complicated in some ways, the concept is the same. Organic beekeepers avoid using any synthetic chemical products on their hives and tend to use more natural, gentle approaches to hive management as well. What makes organic beekeeping complicated is the way honey is made. For honey to be certified organic, the nectar used to make it must come from organic plants. Bees travel long distances to collect pollen and nectar, which means it’s difficult to control exactly which plants they collect from. That’s why there are strict guidelines around the location, management, and testing of organic hives in New Zealand.

Certification criteria

In New Zealand, beekeepers need to be certified before they can claim that their honey is organic. To get certified, they must meet certain standards around how they manage their hives and feed their bees.

Here’s what BioGro looks for in an organic beekeeping operation:

  • To reduce the risk of chemical contamination, hives must be at least 3km away from conventional farms, orchards, and urban areas.
  • Ideally, organic hives should be located in areas surrounded by wild trees and plant life. If there are neighbouring farms, orchards, or gardens within the 3km radius, beekeepers need to speak to the owners and collect statements regarding their use of pesticides.
  • All supplements and products used on hives should be organic – wax, pollen, and oils.
  • When hives need to be treated for Varroa mites or other infestations, beekeepers should use approved organic treatments rather than chemical pesticides.

If you’re a new organic beekeeper, you must meet the standards for a year and have your hives tested for chemical residue before you can label your honey as organic.

Beyond the standards

Meeting the minimum organic standard is one thing, but many organic beekeepers choose to take their commitment further. After all, if you believe in the value of an organic approach, you’ll probably want to do everything you can to make sure your honey is as pure as possible.

Many organic beekeepers choose to follow some or all of these guidelines:

  • Using natural products such as untreated wood for hives
  • Removing frames so bees are free to build natural comb
  • Not using sugar syrup as a supplement food – bees are left with enough honey to get through the winter on their own
  • Avoiding the use of antibiotics to treat disease (using antibiotics to treat AFB in New Zealand is illegal, read more here)
  • Never heating honey over 37 degrees, as this can destroy beneficial enzymes
  • Not cross-blending or mixing different types of honey, so that each batch can be traced back to a hive
  • Not trimming the queen’s wings, although this is often done in conventional beekeeping

In general, the organic approach is aimed at caring for the bees, not just producing as much honey as possible.

Complications and challenges

The pure, natural approach sounds simple, but it isn’t necessarily easy.

In New Zealand, dealing with the invasive Varroa mite is a particular challenge for organic beekeepers. Although there are organic treatment options available, avoiding chemical treatments and preventatives for these invaders can make them difficult to eliminate. Using only organic treatments means that you can’t try multiple types of treatment if the first doesn’t work.

There’s also the issue of chemical contamination. Honeybees have a foraging range of around 3km, which is why beekeepers must place their hives at least that far from commercial farms and orchards and ask neighbours about their pesticide use. But even with those precautions, it’s always possible for bees to find treated plants or trees within their foraging range – whether in a neighbouring garden or from plants being sprayed alongside motorways. If this happens and the honey contains chemical residue, honey producers risk losing their organic certification.

The organic approach isn’t for everyone, but it can be incredibly rewarding.

If you’re interested in learning more, talk to the experts at Ecrotek.