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Honey producers hand-feed bees during drought to save hives, with sting likely for consumers

Justin Huntsdale, Tuesday July 16, 2019 - 16:13 EST
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Deb McLaughlin is fighting to keep her bees alive over winter. - ABC

Beekeepers in New South Wales have resorted to hand-feeding their hives as the drought cripples the bees' ability to make honey and survive winter.

Deb McLaughlin's operation at Bowral in the Southern Highlands is no longer focused on producing commercial amounts of honey, but simply keeping its bees alive.

A mixture of caster sugar and water is sustaining the insects, helping them generate a small reserve of honey.

But Ms McLaughlin said the last harvestable season was two years ago and she had sold most of her remaining stock.

"We've been supplying cafes and restaurants in the area, and this season we haven't been able to do that," she said.

"We've been contacted by several chefs and we haven't been able to give them any honey at all."

Shortage to sting consumers

Winter is a quiet time for a bee hive — the colony shrinks and a small amount of honey is produced to keep the population going.

But a shortage of eucalyptus flowers, which normally form the bees' main diet, has meant there is nowhere to gather nectar.

Ms McLaughlin said it was a situation playing out across Australia.

"In South Australia, their honey yields are down 70 per cent, and it's most likely the case in Brisbane and throughout New South Wales."

She said honey, like any commodity, would increase in price as supplies ran low.

Chef Stephen Santucci uses Ms McLaughlin's honey at his cafe in Robertson, but was recently told supplies had run out.

He said providing a local flavour was important to his business.

"You're developing a sense of flavour of the area and the honey's using the flowers that are local," Mr Santucci said.

"It has a distinct flavour we want to impart in our food, so having a shortage is not ideal for us."

Heat is on for beekeepers

At nearby Bundanoon, beekeeper Denis Garbutt said he had watched the situation deteriorate over the past 25 years as climate change caused warmer winters.

"The past couple of years we haven't had any major honey flows, and the gum trees don't seem to be flowering as well as they should," he said.

"Honey is seasonal and sometimes gum trees won't flower for four to five years — and I'm hoping that's what we're having now — but at the same time, this time of the year we'd have frost, it would be cold.

"Here, we're having beautiful autumn days."

Mr Garbutt said while grey gums and ironbarks produced buds last summer, the heat and lack of rain killed any chance of them developing into nutritious flowers for bees.

The grip of the drought was forcing major producers to walk away from the game, he added.

"We have no real stock up of food for the bees for winter, so we're feeding them — that's all we can do," he said.

"We have to have them. We can't just let our bees go, otherwise we've got no food."


© ABC 2019

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