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Bees starved by drought will cause crops to fail if left to die, warn Queensland beekeepers

By Jennifer Nichols, Wednesday May 20, 2020 - 13:39 EST
ABC image
Bees swarm over straw floating in sugar water in a feeding station in Queensland's Mary Valley. - ABC

The Queensland Beekeepers' Association has used World Bee Day to call for a financial lifeline, warning crops will fail if starving bees don't make it through winter.



An unprecedented combination of drought and bushfires has left little food in the wild and many commercial beekeepers have been forced to hand feed their insects to keep them alive.

Rex Carruthers drives to seven different farms in the Mary Valley before dawn every day, to feed his hungry bees sugar syrup and a pollen substitute.

His goal is not to produce honey, but to keep up the strength of his hives for August, when they would be trucked 980 kilometres south to Victoria for the lucrative job of pollinating almond trees.

Bee feeding plan

While feeding his bees through winter had been part of his regular management plan, Mr Carruthers believed he would need an extra 11 tonnes of sugar, on top of the 24 tonnes he usually fed them, because drought and bushfires had robbed the landscape of nectar and pollen sources.

"Without it they would die, literally die. It only takes a very short time. Once all their stores are gone it only takes a few days and the hive dies," Mr Carruthers said.



"We've never seen such widespread drought in Queensland and the conditions seem to be similar everywhere where the guys have taken bees.

"They are spread all about the state and there just seems to be some little pockets where there's a little bit happening but in essence it is statewide."

Queensland Beekeepers Association president, Jo Martin, said conditions were unprecedented and commercial beekeepers who rarely supplemented their bees' diets had resorted to hand feeding.



"Beekeeping in Queensland has been a way of life for over 134 years and there's a lot of generational beekeeping families who have kept incredibly accurate records of honey production, weather patterns and seasonal honey production forecasts," Ms Martin said.

"But when you starting to talk to those families about 'Have we ever witnessed anything like this? A lot of them are saying no'.

"It's certainly a very scary horizon at the moment for the immediate future."



Australian Honeybee Industry Council chair Peter McDonald said conditions varied across Australia, with Queensland worst off, followed by New South Wales.

"It has been estimated that Queensland's honey crop will be down by about 90 per cent and New South Wales might be down by between 60 and 80 per cent," Mr McDonald said.

"Victoria and Western Australia have had very good production years and South Australia has had good to great, while Tasmania has had a pretty good year as well."

In February the Queensland Government announced a $1 million emergency package, including $350,000 towards a sugar stockpile to feed the bees.



Crops need pollinators

Ms Martin said that supply had already been used up and the 46 per cent of beekeepers who were too proud to put their hands up for help had missed out.



She added the industry desperately needed more financial help because food security was at stake.

Of the 79,000 commercial hives in Queensland — 45,000 of them were used for crop pollination — with seedless watermelon, strawberries, almonds and macadamias across Australia all dependent on bees.

Ms Martin said while at last estimate the state's honey production was valued at $64 million at the farm gate, $2.4 billion worth of Queensland crops relied on bees for pollination.

"The real concern for us is how are we going to keep those beehives alive at the moment, you've got beekeepers out there that haven't had an income cheque in over 18 months so we're really starting to get to the crunch time where the financial capacity of these businesses to keep sustaining these," Ms Martin said.

"Without some really important lifeblood income support back to our hardworking beekeeping operations the future of pollination services in Queensland could be in jeopardy."



Negotiations continue

Queensland Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Minister Mark Furner said the Government's support for the industry was unprecedented and he would continue to work with beekeepers as they combat drought.

But another threat looms on the horizon.

In 2024 commercial beekeepers stand to be locked out of one sixth of beekeeping sites available on state land, in Queensland forests that were turned into national parks.

"Beekeepers need to have certainty that they have a future and have access to what they need, the forests, to keep their bees healthy," Mr McDonald said.

"If we don't have that certainty, the closer we get to 2024 there will be beekeepers who say that this is just not viable anymore, so we need that action very soon."

A Department of Environment and Science spokesperson said the Queensland Government "knows the importance of national parks to the commercial beekeeping industry and was investigating the potential continuation of beekeepers' access to existing sites on national park land after 2024".


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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