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The great pollination debate

The state of local bee populations was a hot topic of conversation immediately following the bushfires in South Australia, but the issue is much more complex than it appears.

When Kangaroo Island beekeeper Peter Davis surveyed the ruins of hundreds of his bee hives, incinerated by bushfire, few people other than another beekeeper could really appreciate the extent of his pain.

It was more than economic pain, more than the loss of income or even livelihood. Beekeepers learn to love their hives and the complex creatures that inhabit them because in many ways bees are like the canary in the environmental coal mine. If they die, we could easily be next.

It’s been estimated that two out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat depend on bee pollination, both honey bee and native bee. While the value of honey production in South Australia is around $11 million, the value of pollination services is $1.7 billion.

Nationally that figure takes on major significance, with the national honey and beeswax industry worth up to $120 million – with the pollination value of honey bees for agricultural and horticultural crops estimated at $8–20 billion, with just over $14 billion the accepted average figure. Almonds, macadamias, apples, cherries, blueberries, avocadoes, lucerne and clover (stuff that cows eat) are among the most honeybee-dependent crops. Altogether, 32 agricultural industries rely on bees for pollination.

South Australia has more than 2000 registered beekeepers with around 70,000 hives, so the loss of an estimated 2000 hives in the recent bushfires may not sound terribly significant, apart from the personal heartbreak involved.

“Don’t look at the hive losses, they’re relatively insignificant when you consider the big picture,” says Danny Le Feuvre, founder and managing director of Australian Bee Services based in Ardrossan. “With bushfires in every state it’s the loss of bee habitat and beehive sites that really matters.”

It’s a view echoed by Peter Davis. With more than 210,000 hectares of Kangaroo Island’s unique flora lost, he’s reported as saying: “The biggest impact is the vast area of native vegetation we have lost. It could be up to seven years before those trees start flowering again. Even for the remaining 600 to 700 hives, we are going to struggle to find places to put them because there is less than a third of the vegetation left on the island.

The bee industry currently estimates about 10,000 hives have been destroyed and many more have been damaged across the country, though Le Feuvre, who is also deputy chair of the national AgriFutures Honey Bee and Pollination Program, says the figure could easily be twice that. Even the loss of 20,000 hives from a national total of around 600,000 is not the critical issue, despite any impact that might have on the price of honey for your morning toast.

Across the nation fires have wiped out some 12 million hectares of temperate vegetation between southern Queensland and central Victoria, Australia’s prime area for beekeeping and honey production. At one point the land area burnt was reckoned to be six times as much as the 2019 Amazon fires or the 2018 California fires, but those were based on early figures.

With heatwaves, lack of rain and lack of nectar due to haphazard flowering, on top of pesticide use causing colony collapse, many honeybee colonies have struggled and become more susceptible to disease, making them less efficient in their crucial role as pollinators. There is now a serious loss of habitat that threatens the existence of the bee colonies that have so far survived.

As Peter McDonald, the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council chair, says: “This is a national problem which threatens food crop production.

Sia Duff
The summer’s bushfire crisis has had wide-reaching effects on wildlife and producers

“Where honey bees have escaped the blazes, they will starve before spring unless urgent action by both industry and government is taken to save them.”

That affects many of Australia’s 1660 species of native bee as well. Often solitary creatures living in tree crevices or holes in the ground, with 300 species in the Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges region, native bees are excellent pollinators of fruit trees and vegetables. They also pollinate many native plants – in fact some of our native plants can only be pollinated by native bees. But they, too, have now lost vast swathes of natural habitat.

Even McDonald concedes that “in some ways native bees are more effective at pollination”, but he adds that “the honey bee is scaleable and more economic on an industrial scale”.

This probably explains why Dr Katja Hogendoorn, a native bee expert at the University of Adelaide, regards honey bees as “a farmed animal”. Due to the ability to split hives and increase bee numbers, and to move them to new sites, the survival of honey bees is less endangered than that of native bees.

NSW apiarists say it will take up to 10 years for honey production to recover from the fires. They expect it could take between 5 and 20 years for some flowering gums to fully recover, and to produce enough nectar and pollen to feed the bees. Even in Tasmania, many bees are now starving to death due to wilting leatherwood flowers and a lack of pollen.

In the meantime, what is to be done by industry, government and even concerned individuals? There are competing views.

McDonald argues strongly that beekeepers must be allowed immediate and ongoing access to unburned public land, such as national parks and conservation areas. He’s backed by the almond industry, with Almond Board of Australia CEO Ross Skinner saying: “Future floral reserves are the key issue and we’re supporting the honey industry in its efforts to find new sites.”

Almond growers have a strong interest in this, requiring strong, healthy hives each August for pollination, for which they’ll pay up to $100 per hive. This is a fast expanding and valuable industry worth about $1billion a year, with some 200,000 bee colonies taken to pollinate more than 30,000 hectares in NSW, Victoria and South Australia.

Skinner believes his industry will still be able to muster enough hives this year, though some doubt is cast on that by Le Feuvre, who says that, even if they get the numbers, many hives will be weaker through drought and loss of natural habitat.

McDonald says bees can be kept alive in the short term with sugar syrup and pollen patties, but this is costly and not sustainable in the long term. Even when crops such as almonds and avocado become available, they provide only a few weeks of pollen supply.

But native bee scientists are equally strongly opposed to opening up national parks to beekeepers. Entomologist Tim Heard, president of the Australian Native Bee Association and one of the most respected authorities on native bees in Australia, says native bees are much more at the mercy of the elements and are not good at competing with the more aggressive honey bee for available food sources.

“On a global scale, honey bees are really responsible for only a third of all pollination,” he says, “while native bees and other insects do the rest and provide a major boost to eco-systems. While honey bees are scaleable and can be managed, they’re not always the most efficient pollinators and a diversity of insects can matter more and provide a better level of pollination.”

There are two things, though, on which everyone agrees.

“It’s a very important issue, our food production depends on it and we’re struggling,” Heard says. “While there are estimates of a billion animals lost, the damage to our insect population is incalculable. While animals can mostly bounce back and breed, the scale of our insect loss is so enormous it may take decades to recover.”

The second is the immediate and urgent need to provide short-term foraging opportunities for both honey and native bees, both at an industrial level with crops such as canola or sunflower, along with bee-friendly native plants in urban parks and gardens (see breakout story).

While crops such as canola provide relatively short-term assistance, Danny Le Feuvre suggests a more radical and ongoing change in agricultural practice with the deliberate and extensive planting of bee pastures, with fast flowering native species.

That would be appreciated by both our honey and native bee populations – and keep our supermarket food shelves full.

Nigel Hopkins

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