A Taranaki beekeeper has invented a “revolutionary” way of boosting bee output by creating honeycombs using the bees’ own wax rather than waiting weeks for them to do the job.
Shandy Gibbs and three partners have created a startup company Ceratech to develop and market the technology they have created.
Plant and Food Research scientist Dr Mark Goodwin said the innovation was only the second significant change in beehive construction since Lorenzo Langstroth created frames for hives in the 1850s.
“The first was the use of the plastic foundation about 100 years ago. If this project is successful this will be the second thing in 100 years that’s changed.”
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The innovation will also mean a lessening in the risk of disease because old combs will not have to be used.
Using the bees’ own wax, Ceratech has come up with a way of creating new honeycombs that are ready to use immediately. They are also able to clean the combs without using chemicals.
Gibbs said during winter and early spring, beekeepers set the hives up for the flow of honey in summer, by making sure the bees have enough food so they are in good condition.
“The only thing we don’t give them is the comb they put the honey into. Bees use so much energy to create combs, it takes seven kilograms of honey to make 1 kg of wax.
“And because the combs are so valuable, beekeepers use the same ones for up to 10 years, which is creating a huge problem for pests and diseases,” Gibbs said.
Ceratech had come up with a way to sterilise the wax which removed parasites and diseases. Re-using honey frames year after year is the number one cause of the spread of American foulbrood and the honey bee parasite Nosema ceranae.
The comb had to be made using a medium that bees like, which is why their own wax was used. Others have experimented with plastic and stainless steel, neither of which was accepted by the bees.
Gibbs said the technology promised to boost honey production by short circuiting the time needed to make the comb.
“So far we have carried out pilot trials, and when we tested the combs that we made, the bees started to put honey in within 24 hours, rather than the couple of weeks it takes for them to build their own combs on foundations.”
The invention aims to allow beekeepers to increase honey yields without increasing hive numbers. Gibbs said beeswax had never been used to recreate honeycomb and the frames made this possible.
Goodwin said the invention would be welcomed by bees which could now spend their time foraging for nectar.
Bees produced different sized cells, depending on whether they were being used for workers or honey bees.
“This will give us the option of tweaking it to give us the optimum size for honey bees,” Goodwin said.
He predicted it would be difficult for competitors to replicate the technology. Somebody in Europe had tried on a small scale recently but not at a commercial level.
Ceratech, backed by agribusiness accelerator Sprout, is seeking $500,000 from investors to develop their invention. They plan to carry out scientific trials in Canada and New Zealand this year.
The company consists of Gibbs, her partner Marty and two industrial designers, one of whom has moved back to Tauranga from Europe where he was working on aircraft design. Gibbs’s family runs North Taranaki Apiaries.
The Ministry of Primary Industries is looking to grow the honey industry to $1.1 billion over the next 10 years.