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Case study

Ashley Mortensen: from zookeeper to beekeeper

12 Nov 2020

Dr Ashley Mortensen is a serial hobbyist who likes to try her hand at different things, but she has always been fascinated by animal behaviour and biology. It is her interest in backyard beekeeping that has brought this former zookeeper and veterinary nurse to New Zealand as a bee researcher, trading big cats (and domestic cats) for bees. 

“Insects are very different from mammals,” says Ashley. “For a start, the have an open circulatory system where their ‘blood’ just wooshes around in their body, and they have a closed respiratory system where they have trachea moving air all throughout their body, like our veins do with blood!”

Ashley’s life-changing moment was winning a competition and being awarded a free honey bee colony in 2009 in the USA. She was fascinated with the insect and went on to gain an MSc and a PhD in entomology at the University of Florida. 

“I like the concept of ‘superorganisms’ – a group of organisms that function as one. Honey bees are superorganisms. Each honey bee is an individual organism but it also is interconnected to other bees in the colony so much so that each bee kind of acts as a cell in the larger organism – the colony.”

Ashley considers herself quite lucky to have had two job offers after completing her PhD in 2017. She chose to join Plant & Food Research’s pollination group at Ruakura, where a wide range of research is carried out on using insect pollinators to promote sustainable crop production. 

Her work includes artificially rearing honey bees, studying what drives the foraging activity of a colony, and understanding how the population interacts with colony function. Her interest also extends to bumble bees and New Zealand’s native bees.

She has been involved in the development of BumbleBox, a low-cost bumble bee rearing system. While honey bees are the main managed pollinators in New Zealand, bumble bees have their own advantages in pollinating certain crops. They are more robust and resistant to weather conditions such as cold, rain and light. Each individual bumble bee is also more efficient because it vibrates more.

“The preliminary results are quite promising. After four to six weeks in an orchard environment, about 2,300 of 3,000 queens were able to produce a small colony each, and the colony was pollination-ready after another four to six weeks.”

The team is continuing work on the system as they look for more opportunities to have affordable bumble bee colonies busy pollinating orchards in New Zealand. 


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