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.
“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.