Beekeeping in the Kingdom of Tonga on the Island of Vava'u

The Kingdom of Tonga in the Pacific is the very first country in the world to see the dawn of every new day. Named the Friendly Island by Captain Cook in 1773, the Kingdom of Tonga is made up of 176 islands, of which 40 are inhabited. The Polynesians arrived 3,500 years ago. Tonga is the world's only remaining Polynesian Monarchy and the only South Pacific country to never be invaded by a foreign power. Tongan's are humble, down-to-earth people, who deeply respect traditions and culture and love sports. A very safe place for tourists to visit, many churches dot the country side and most business close on Sunday.

From December to April the weather is hot and humid, 29°C day temperatures, with considerable rainfall. From May to November the weather is cooler 25°C day temperature, day to night temperature varies about 7°C. Tonga has a variety of scenery - dramatic volcanic landscapes, low-lying coral atolls, pristine coral reefs and sand beaches. Spread over 700 km, Tonga is divided into four main island groups - Tongatapu (with the capital Nuku'alofa), Ha'apai group, the Vava'u group and the Niuatoputapu group. Virgin Australia have direct flights to the capital Nuku'alofa, from where Real Tonga operate a Chinese-built aircraft to Lapepau'u airport in Vava'u - an interesting experience. Vava'u is regarded as Tonga's most scenic, the island is 115km2 and home to Tonga's second-largest port with the capital Neiafu. Port of Refuge attracts yachts from all over the world, you can even swim with the whales. Vava'u is fringed with coral reefs and with very clear water in places, you can see down to the beautiful coral gardens packed with brightly coloured tropical reef fish, with visibility down to 30 metres.

The languages spoken are English and Tongan. In Tongan bee or pi is wasp Bee is hone (hon ay)  how confusing We asked to see a bee hive but were shown a wasp nest. Vava'u has one National Park, Mount Talau, with no restrictions on beekeeping. Tonga's flora represent a South Pacific environment that is unique as it is beautiful. Open country, rainforests and mud flats. Very little if anything is known about the flora ofbenefit to honeybees. Vava'u has a Botanical Garden, which we visited to discuss the flora; the botanist has an excellent knowledge of the flora but was not familiar with the rewards for honeybees.

One of the beekeepers, Jonathan Treaster and his wife Lena were successful in obtaining a grant from The Tonga Business Centre, so they could be trained in beekeeping practices. Lamorna told me about the project and I successfully applied to provide the training. Lamorna accompanied me for some of the twenty four days spent in Tonga and helped with the training. Jonathan and Lena had two apiaries with managed colonies, one located near the International Airport at Lupepau'u and the other at Holeva, for a total of seven hives. But a lot of material - about ninety, well-made, ten frame full depth Langstroth material, all with plastic frames and plastic comb foundation included. They had purchased the material from a beekeeper who had left the island. Another hive was owned by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and two by an Australian who is managing the Vanilla plantations for the Australian company Queen. Honeybees are not pollinators of vanilla due to the flower structure.

Working Jonathan's managed hives

Working Jonathan's managed hives

Disease Status

Managed and feral colonies were inspected for pests and disease. Varroa destructor was detected at various levels of infection on brood and adult bees, as well as very low levels of chalkbrood (Ascophera apis). Some feral colonies had brood capped with a black unperforated cap, which when opened had a dead dry pupa inside, we are not sure if this was caused by Varroa or Black Queen Cell virus or some other cause. Wax moths were detected in feral colonies. No other pests or diseases were found by visual inspections. In 2006 in August, as part of an industry development and training plan by AgriQuality New Zealand, 4 out of the 6 managed hives located on the Tongan island of Vava'u were found to contain Varroa. No Varroa was found in any feral colonies surveyed.

An attempt to contain Varroa was undertaken by the New Zealanders and Tongan Livestock Officer in August and November using Apistan and NZ tried to get more funding for surveys to do an eradication program. This didn't go ahead for unknown reasons. Eradication would require depopulation of all colonies. No Varroa were found on the other island groups. This work was undertaken by Byron Taylor (who attended the Merimbula NSWAA State Conference as a guest speaker) and Tony Roper.

Chalkbrood was first detected in Tonga in 2000 by Bettesworth.

The New Zealand survey also identified Nosema apis, Sac brood, Wax Moth, and American foulbrood on the island of Eua, with the colony destroyed. We were able to look at both managed and feral colonies and saw no evidence of American Foulbrood on Vava'u. However imported honey was sold in one supermarket, that if bees robbed, may or may not pose a risk. In 1971 an unknown mite Edbarellus tonganus was identified and NZ was unwilling to allow imported queen from Tonga into NZ, where a NZ company Kintail had plans in place to raise and export queens. (See a reference to this mite at the end of this article)

Genetic Base

Honeybees were probably introduced to the Tongan Island via the early missionaries. This local honeybee has adapted very well to the environment and conditions in Tonga, it is a dark race on Vava'u. In July the colonies were just starting to raise drones and were below maximum colony strength, as evidenced by the amount of comb not covered by bees.

Feral Queen and progeny

Feral Queen and progeny

Feral Bees on brood with good stored pollen, even when Varroa is present

Feral Bees on brood with good stored pollen, even when Varroa is present

Some feral colonies had some Italian yellow colour in the progeny. There is no doubt Italian stock have found its way to Tonga. The feral and managed colonies with yellowish progeny had the most stored honey. Interesting where robbing occurred was that the yellowish coloured bees arrived first.

Yellow bees robbing honey

Yellow bees robbing honey

It is hoped to get the right paper work from the Australian and Tongan Government to get the stock DNA tested to identify race.

Bruce has visited twenty six beekeeping countries and considers the Tongan feral population to be the most non-aggressive bees he has encountered. They are so easy to control with little or no smoke. They appear to have a strong tolerance to Varroa destructor- some colonies had survived this pest as a feral colony for up to 10 years. We removed 16 feral colonies, mainly from houses, schools or Government buildings and were told how long the colonies had been in the cavities.

No treatment controls are being used by the beekeepers on Vava'u for Varroa. We are not experts in Varroa tolerance but were surprised at the amount of dark comb in the feral colonies and large number of colonies. In discussing this with Murray Reid, National Manager Apiculture NZ who knows a lot more about Varroa then we do, Murray explained it that it could have a lot to do with the viruses present or not present in the Tongan bees - an unknown., as no detailed virus survey has been done. It is well documented that Varroa spread viruses. causing a breakdown of colonies.

Flora

Successful beekeeping is all about colony management and flora, and for two Australians it was very difficult to evaluate the reward the bees were getting from the flora, which is so different to the Australian flora.

Mangroves and Coconuts

Mangroves and Coconuts

A visit to the Botanical Gardens to speak to the Botanist was the first step, he was very knowledgeable about the flora and the Botanical names but not on the nectar and pollen rewards the bees from the various species, but did mention he had some eucalypts. The beekeeper has been given the task of observing the plants visited by the bees to see if they are collecting pollen, nectar or both, and counting and recording the different colour of pollen being collected by the bees and identify it back to the plant, also observing nectar gatherers and recording the information. At the time of our visit (July), the bees were collecting Coconut pollen (yellow) and Farmers Friend, Pitchforks, (Bidens pilous -orange), a common plant that is also in Australia.

Cleared country with Farmers Friend (Bidens pilosu) providing pollen

Cleared country with Farmers Friend (Bidens pilosu) providing pollen

All colonies were storing plenty of protein rich pollen, mainly from these two species, all day. Other species identify Kapok Tree (Ceiba pentandra) pollen in the mornings only. Other flora that was not flowering but may be of some value included Avocado, Cucurbits, e.g. Watermelons, Squash, Grammar, Rock Melon, Cucumbers, Pawpaw, Wild Citrus, Banana , Mimosa ,Casuarina and Mangroves. The Mangroves are heavily budded in some areas and should flower in the next few months. With such a short visit and no reference material it was very difficult for us to evaluate the flora returns and if honeybee colonies can collect a surplus of nectar (to enable honey extraction and still leave sufficient honey for the colonies not to starve over a twelve month period.)

Inland flora

Inland flora

Observing Flying Foxes and Blue Crowned Lorikeets may be of value to the beekeeper in identify valuable flora, as both these species feed on nectar and pollen.

Feral Colonies

A total of 16 feral colonies were removed from buildings, and these colonies were re-queened using a grafted queen cell from a selected docile managed colony that showed resistance to Varroa and honey gathering ability. The wall panels or roof sheets were screwed back on after removing the colony so if swarms enter the cavities it will be easy to do monitoring or remove them. Feral bee colonies are in high numbers in trees, buildings and caves, and would be difficult to eradicate.

Feral Colony in a Cave

Feral Colony in a Cave

Bruce removing a feral colony from the school

Bruce removing a feral colony from the school

Feral colony left overnight bees collecting Farmers Friend Pollen (orange) Coconut (coconut (yellow)

Feral colony left overnight bees collecting Farmers Friend Pollen (orange) Coconut (coconut (yellow)

Lena with a swarm that absconded from a cavity

Lena with a swarm that absconded from a cavity

Bruce up a ladder removing a feral colony from a roof cavity

Bruce up a ladder removing a feral colony from a roof cavity

Jonathan on the roof removing a feral colony

Jonathan on the roof removing a feral colony

Lamorna and Bruce examining brood from a feral colony, with Lena and the Botanist, at the Botanic Gardens

Lamorna and Bruce examining brood from a feral colony, with Lena and the Botanist, at the Botanic Gardens

Smoke Fuel

We tried all sorts of bark and leaves, then found a pine plantation at Houma, so our problem was solved as pine needles make excellent smoker fuel, the centre of dry coconuts the next best.

Grafting

Neither Jonathan nor Lena had never grafted, at the first attempt Jonathan obtained an 80% success rate, his wife Lena an 85%. We were all very pleased with this result using the Swathmore Method.

Lamorna and Jonathan preparing a Swathmore box, ventilating the bottom

Lamorna and Jonathan preparing a Swathmore box, ventilating the bottom

Lamorna and Jonathan grafting queen cell

Lamorna and Jonathan grafting queen cell

Close up of feral bees

Close up of feral bees

Constraints at the Hive.

Jonathan's business is based on plastic frames and foundation and even when coated with beeswax the bees, often even with a nectar flow, draw them incorrectly, preferring not to draw out the worker cells, building drone comb or burr and brace comb. In one managed hive, 30% of the brood combs weren't suitable for use in the brood nest. This can be overcome by using wax foundation under suitable conditions for brood combs.

Plastic frame with drone and burr comb even though it was coated with beeswax.

Plastic frame with drone and burr comb even though it was coated with beeswax.

White sugar is not available so it is difficult to simulate colonies using sugar if the need arise.

Lena and Jonathan with finished Queen cells

Lena and Jonathan with finished Queen cells

Hive Sites

The maximum temperature gets to a bit over 30°C, and the colonies at one site were in the shade, so the foliage was cleared to allow in more sunlight (so the field bees would fly longer.) Some hives were on stands, others we located on the ground so that we can evaluate the difference on a return visit.

Apiary established from feral colonies

Apiary established from feral colonies

Jonathan and Lena were given the NSWDPI Ag Guide book Healthy Bees and NSWDPI Agskill book on Beekeeping. They were given very detailed instructions on best beekeeping practices and details were written down,  and they weregiven a number of observations tasks. A return visit is very possible next year to check up on the colonies and to provide more training. Jonathan and Lena were excellent hosts and every day that we were in Tonga we spoke about beekeeping. Sundays were the only days we didn't open colonies. They are keen to expand their beekeeping business and this will depend on how well the flora will produce nectar and pollen over a 12 month period; this will vary from year to year and will require management to suit.

A special thanks to Murray Reid from New Zealand who is in charge of the beekeeping program for Assurequality and provided valuable reports and comments on the previous work done by the New Zealand Apiary Officers in Tonga in 2000 and 2006

References

1. AgriQuaility Limited NZ - Honey Bee Disease Survey and Beekeeper Training in Tonga

2. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation - ‘Pollination Aware’

3. D C M Mason A New Species Genus and Subfamily of Mesostigmatid Mite ( Acarina ascidae) Associated with Honeybees in Tonga Edbarellus tonganus Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 1974 Vol 4 No2 pages 115 122

Author: Bruce White OAM (Retired Technical Specialist Apiculture NSWDPI) and Dr Lamorna Osborne (NSW Apiarist's Association Executive)