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