Research project spies on honey bees, for their health

Bees can tell us a lot about human circadian rhythms. Now we're spying on bees for their own good too - to check the health of their colonies.

Honeybee on Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium)
Honey bee health is vital for the manuka honey industry as an example.

A group of researchers in the Department of Anaesthesiology recently hosted an iwi delegation led by Kaumatua Wikitoria Tewhata (Ngāti Porou) at Old Government House to discuss a research project aimed at improving the health of honey bees.

The researchers have used honey bees as a model for research on human circadian (daily) rhythms, which govern sleeping and waking, but now they are turning their attention to the bees themselves, with a view to helping them survive.

“Bees are vital to our agricultural industry and our environment, but there hasn't been as much investment in science around their health when compared to dairy, for example,” says Associate Professor Guy Warman, who is the principal investigator and leader of the chronobiology research team.

“We have preliminary data and access to sophisticated monitoring equipment to observe bee activity non-invasively. The connection with tangata whenua will strengthen our work and we are looking forward to a fruitful partnership.”

At the hui on 30 June, Wikitoria shared his knowledge, handed down over generations, of the whenua and people.

Standing for a photo at OGH are Dr James Cheeseman, Steve Hutana, Victoria Hutana, Deana Lye, Wikitoria Tewhata, Dr David Cumin, Associate Professor Craig Millar, Associate Professor Guy Warman and Pastor Paul Wihongi.
Dr James Cheeseman, Steve Hutana (Te Aitanga a Hauiti), Victoria Hutana (Te Aitanga a Hauiti), Deana Lye (Ngāpuhi), Kaumatua Wikitoria Tewhata (Ngāti Porou), Dr David Cumin, Associate Professor Craig Millar, Associate Professor Guy Warman and pastor Paul Wihongi (Ngāpuhi).

We have preliminary data and access to sophisticated monitoring equipment to observe bee activity non-invasively. 

Associate Professor Guy Warman, principal investigator Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Waipapa Taumata Rau

Steve Hutana (Te Aitanga a Hauiti), founder of charitable trust Māori Initiatives, spoke about the importance of bringing a Māori perspective to the project.

“Steve has established links with Māori beekeepers on the East Coast who are interested to share their experiences and mātauranga as we embark on this exciting project,” Guy says.

The delegation included representatives of iwi in Northland (Ngāpuhi), as well as the East Coast (Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga a Hauiti).

The research team is collaborating with researchers in Berlin who have developed state-of-art equipment that can be installed in hives to ‘spy’ on bees’ activity.

The idea is to use this system to monitor bees’ circadian (daily) rhythms in order to detect changes that predict worsening health in the colony. This early warning system will help beekeepers intervene to keep the bees healthy.

Guy and the team are applying for a Catalyst Seeding and a MBIE Smart Ideas grant to fund the work. The group has also engaged with Plant and Food, New Zealand Bee Keepers, and experts in Germany and the US.

By Jodi Yeats

This story was first published in UniNews August 2023.