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Bee shortage in the NT threatens crop pollination after back-to-back dry wet seasons

By Jon Daly, Monday July 27, 2020 - 07:10 EST
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King's Bees manager Sam Curtis says low rainfall in recent years has stopped honey production almost entirely. - ABC

The Northern Territory's bee numbers are dwindling after back-to-back dry wet seasons, to the point that beekeepers cannot satisfy demand for honey and crucial pollination services.



Territory-wide, there was a in the 2019-2020 wet season and 34 per cent in 2018-19.

The lower rainfall caused many native Top End trees and plants to produce much less nectar, on which healthy bee populations depend.

Sam Curtis is a commercial beekeeper based in Katherine, 320 kilometres south-east of Darwin, and his honey production has stopped altogether in recent years.

"Native trees will flower but they won't produce any nectar, so you can have beautiful flowering but no food coming in off the plants, which is frustrating," he said.

Survival mode

Mr Curtis also contracts his bees to local farmers to help pollinate horticultural crops, but even that is getting tough because his bee numbers have dropped by 20 per cent this year.

"We haven't been able to sell any honey for the past few years, and it's been pretty difficult for our pollination contracts because I have to tell them I can't give them as many bees as they want," Mr Curtis said.

"The bees are being very conservative, they're just coasting, and they're just doing exactly what they need to do to continue to survive."

The business is also in survival mode: Mr Curtis said it was losing $40-50,000 a year from lost honey production and pollination contracts.



"We are spending a significant amount of money on sugar and pollen supplements to sustain the hives, which is not sustainable for too long, so we need it to turn around pretty soon," he said.

The lack of bees has local farmers worried.

Teagan Alexander is one of the growers at one of the Territory's largest watermelon farms, Red Dirt Melons.

She said melon crops were dependent on good pollination, making the shortage of bees a big concern.

"Ideally, the pollination rate is 3-7.5 beehives per hectare, and we're at four, and we really need to be higher to make sure the bees are flying out and covering the crop," she said.

"If we can't keep those bee numbers up, we're not going to have the pollinations and we're not going to have the melons."



Searching for nectar

As nectar becomes scarce, some Top End beekeepers are searching farther afield for flowers.

Andrew Shugg runs Bees Creek honey and normally he would not place his hives past Adelaide River, about 80 kilometres south of his property.



This year he has doubled his travel distance and is taking his hives as far as Oolloo Crossing, about 200 kilometres away from home.

"I've got to travel a long way to find a decent patch to put my bees on, and we suffer from fires as well so finding a good spot to put bees has been quite difficult in the last few years," Mr Shugg said.

Mr Shugg said he was "scraping" to meet the demand for honey and pollination of local crops.

"There are more farmers starting to grow stuff in the Territory now than ever," he said.

Mr Shugg said the health of those new crops would suffer if there was not a strong population of NT bees.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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