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Cutting-Edge Training

Bees play a vital role in all aspects of the ecosystem, whether it be supporting the growth of flora by their pollinating abilities or providing fauna with the food and shelter they require through thriving vegetation. They are also the only insect that produces food for human consumption which makes them even more fascinating.

We visited Mark Hellyer, director at Pacific Coast Technical Institute (PCTI), at one of their beekeeping locations based at AgriSea’s headquarters in Paeroa. PCTI is a tertiary education provider based in Mount Maunganui offering beekeeping courses to students throughout New Zealand. They teach around 300 to 400 students, delivering programmes that cater to the individual depending on what they’re wanting to achieve. With over 25 years of experience in programme development, management and delivery, Mark owns and operates PCTI alongside his co-director, Fiona Morris. Their areas of expertise include horticulture, agriculture and apiculture.

“Most of the skills that make up any of those [primary] industries, we encourage and teach people how to use those products and innovate with them. We are very big on food innovation and food product processing. So, we train young New Zealanders to work in those industries and really start to think about food in a different way,” Mark said.

PCTI uses a practical training style and goes wherever the jobs may take them. In this instance, it took them to Paeroa to work in an apiary with the bees. Mark discussed the three key areas of their beekeeping programme: analysing the bees’ behaviour in the hive management area, selecting a good location for the bees to develop a colony and feed themselves, and keeping the bees in the best possible health.

Their programmes generally start in July of one year and finish in April of the next. They follow the bees as they come out of their hibernation stage in winter to teach students how to construct a commercial level of hives. Students are then able to split hives that have strong enough numbers and move them to another area on the property where they will add the queen cages to the hives. “Once the bees figure out that there's a queen there, they're not going to know who she is yet, so, they're going to start trying to chew through a little sugar capsule at the end. By the time they've finished chewing through that sugar capsule, they're going to be familiar with her and her pheromones and then she’s going to be one of the neighbours. With a new queen on board, they'll start feeding her royal jelly and then she'll go off and get mated,” Mark said.

The bees are located on high ground nearby a river system that gets sun all day, with sunshine a key factor for the bees’ hive productivity. With the fl ora around them, namely willows, this gives the bees an earlier flowering period and an important source of protein, supplying food for up to six weeks earlier than they would usually get.

The early flowering maximises the bees’ strength so that they can carry out their pollination abilities and honey production. “If we get an earlier laying pattern from the queen, we're going to have a much larger population. We've got all the worker bees out in the environment foraging much earlier, and flowering has come earlier over the last ten seasons. We want that foraging population as early as we can get them and, as the nectar and pollen start to come in, we can fill those frames out with new babies and turn the nectar into honey for food supplements. Once this happens, we can start adding more boxes and frames to the hives – that’s called supering,” he explained.

Mark stressed the importance of looking after the bees and keeping them in the best possible position. They feed them two treatments of AgriSea’s Bee Nutrition, a supplement to give the bees a good nutritional boost, filled with ten amino acids to help them thrive.

“We've trialled AgriSea Bee Nutrition for the last three years, and completed research with a control apiary and a test apiary which has been fed with the Nutrition. Our bee numbers, our weights of hives and our research around Nosema, which is basically a parasite that lives in the bee’s gut that stops it from absorbing nutrition, show that we think that the Nutrition has given us a much healthier population of bees, with less of this Nosema parasite hanging around. If we can keep the bees healthy and keep the gut able to absorb the nutrition, then the bees are going to be healthier, they're going to be able to perform their changing roles in the hive, and then they're going to be able to get out there and forage and supply food back to their hives,” Mark said.

There are three different types of groups that their apiculture course caters to; the fi rst group are the commercial beekeepers, those who have worked in the industry for a while but would love a deeper understanding of bee behaviour or to update themselves on pests and disease. The second group is people who want to start creating their own hives, and the third group is the ones that have beehives already.

“There's a care component to looking after livestock ethically, and that group of people I’ve really got a lot of time for. They've not necessarily done the programme because it's something they're going to do for a career, they've done it because they know that there's more they want to know about caring for what is a sentient being, which is caring for livestock. And for us, that's important,” Mark said.

“We're very keen on a much broader approach to what apiculture offers New Zealand. For horticulture, that's pollination and bee-related products; we're not just focusing on honey, we'd like to look at propolis and pollen as well. There’s a long way to go in New Zealand in terms of producing product pollen. Product pollen is collected by bees and is a protein source. There are all sorts of health outcomes, even medicinal value to using pollen and propolis. So, propolis, with its antiseptic values, is an advanced medical style solution that has been used by some iconic New Zealand companies,” Mark added.

Mark has a passion for primary industries and its the bread and butter of PCTI. He grows avocados, he dabbles in forestry and, being from the Waikato, there’s always a background in floriculture and dairy farming that he takes an interest in.

“As you get older, you become more and more interested in science and the way things work. If you want to get out there and understand something, then I think you should get out there and do it. Learning by doing is easily the best way of doing it,” he said.

As Mark mentioned, PCTI is always looking for its next version 2.0. They want to always be one step ahead and continue to move with the times and keep up with nutritional methods or new innovations in hiveware. Horticulture, agriculture and apiculture are all very important primary industries, and a lot of the skills and teachings taught at PCTI are transferrable. Cutting-edge industries need cutting-edge training, and that’s what PCTI strives to provide for its students.

If you're interested in PCTI's beekeeping programmes starting in July 2023, head to