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Honey shortages predicted as beekeepers face worst conditions on record due to bushfires, drought

Melanie Groves and Elly Bradfield, Tuesday November 5, 2019 - 10:33 EDT
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Beekeepers are facing a tough season, with bushfires and droughts taking their toll. - ABC

Australia is facing a domestic honey shortage, with years of natural disasters affecting beekeepers and their hives.

Drought, cyclones and bushfires have each impacted upon the environment, reducing the pollen and nectar honeybees require to survive and produce honey.

For the first time in 16 years, Queensland beekeeper Phil Dunlop has had to start carrying in water for his bees to drink after the creeks in the Lockyer Valley dried up.

"Normally there's sufficient water nearby in the creeks and dams so we're bringing water in just to keep the bees going," he said.

"A lot of people think, 'oh, do bees need water?' Of course they do — the same as any other animal."

Mr Dunlop said watermelon farmers in the region had planted less than half their usual crops because they did not have sufficient water supplies, diminishing the flowers for bees to pollinate.

"So they're cutting back and so then we cut back," Mr Dunlop said.

As the native trees come into flower, Mr Dunlop would normally transport his hives to the Glen Rock state forest, but bushfires in early October have destroyed many of the trees the bees forage on.

Despite the persistent challenges, Mr Dunlop remained upbeat.

"You've just got to keep going," he said.

"As all the farmers say, 'just keep battling on'.

"At least we're a bit lucky with the bees that we can pick them up and move them to different areas."

The long road to recovery

In north Queensland, beekeeper Paul Marsh has only recently seen his bees recover from the devastating effects of Cyclone Debbie two years ago.

"I was blown away by how long [the bees' recovery] has taken," Mr Marsh said.

"It was all the damage to the trees and the environment that really created havoc for us.

"We didn't get any honey for probably seven months at all, and then we had a drought afterwards."

Mr Marsh transports his hives up to 350 kilometres away to find adequate sources of pollen and nectar, but said he knew of people who transported hives interstate, thousands of kilometres away, to find a suitable environment.

"But I wouldn't encourage them to come up because there's really nothing going. There's just enough to keep us, keep the bees maybe in the condition that they're hopefully in," he said.

The tough conditions had Mr Marsh questioning the viability of continuing.

"It has been hard the past couple of years," he said.

"The thought of getting out of bees is something that I don't think of too often, it crosses my mind, but it'd be hard for me to do.

"Hopefully we'll keep going. We'll get some good years again, and I'll get fired back up again."

Industry at risk of losing experienced beekeepers

Australia has around 1,500 commercial beekeepers, with approximately 800 of those supplying Hive + Wellness Australia, which markets the Capilano brand.

Chief operating officer of Hive + Wellness Australia Ben McKee said they were facing the worst honey crop in their history.

"Lack of rain, which is affecting the flowering patterns of trees in turn, is affecting the beekeepers' ability to get honey," Mr McKee said.

"And with the added problem of bushfires, we find our beekeepers running from town to town trying to get out of the way of bushfires as well, which has complicated the industry at the moment."

Mr McKee said honey prices would rise as production dropped.

"We're doing all we can to raise prices so that our beekeepers, even though they're getting less honey, [they're] getting more money for it to keep them alive," he said.

"The reality is our honey might not be on special any more and retail prices may go up because our prices are going up to beekeepers and that's going to flow through to what's happening on the retail shelves."

While Mr McKee acknowledged beekeepers were familiar with persisting drought conditions, he did believe the industry was at risk of losing experienced keepers.

"Every time we have conditions like this we lose beekeepers, it becomes too hard," he said.

"[For beekeepers] keeping their people employed is an important part of the industry. Because next year if conditions are better, we still need the same skill base."


© ABC 2019

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