Every year in late August, convoys of semi-trailers converge on two big almond farms outside Mildura on the Murray River. They have journeyed from Queensland, South Australia and from all over NSW and Victoria. The cargo? Bee hives.
‘Almond growers have built a landscape that’s very good at creating almonds but it doesn’t have the ingredients that these insects have evolved with’. That’s Dr Saul Cunningham speaking, and he means that pollinators need nesting sites and diverse foods. After all, almond trees flower for just two weeks. Monoculture crops like those huge almond orchards cannot sustain natural pollinators, creating a market for beekeepers who subsidise their honey businesses by renting out their bees at a current rate of $70 a hive. It doesn’t sound like much—until you realise that those almond farmers need 180,000 hives every year. That’s an annual road trip for about a third of Australia’s honey bee population.
Saul Cunningham is Director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University and specialises in the area of maintaining biodiversity in agricultural landscapes. He was speaking at the Bermagui Beach Hotel on 2 May as a guest of the Bermagui Institute. His topic: ‘Is there a bee crisis?’
There are about 20,000 species of bee on the planet. Australia has perhaps 2000 species. One species, the introduced European honey bee, lives socially in hives with a queen. Honey bees must collect pollen to feed bee larvae, and drink nectar to keep their energy up. They need to fly from flower to flower for pollen and nectar and in their travels they pollinate plants. And they produce honey to store food for the winter.
It’s the pollinating and the honey production that make European honey bees an economic proposition.
European honey bees will always return to their hive and their queen, and this makes them manageable—beekeepers can move their hives to areas where trees are flowering, for honey production. And they can transport them to take advantage of crop pollination opportunities like those almond farms.
On that night in Bermagui, we were primed for apocalyptic horror—we’d heard the rumour of a 40% decline in insects worldwide (or was it a decline in 40% of insect species? Details!) Bogong moths had failed to hurl their powdery, pulpy bodies against our windows and screens this autumn, and there seemed to be fewer mozzies than usual. It’s true that European honey bee numbers have declined dramatically in the US and Europe in recent years … due to neonicotinoid pesticides? Varroa mites? Genetically modified crops? Climate change?
But Dr Cunningham led us gently though the premise that the sharp drop in honey bee numbers in those regions was driven not by pesticides, not by biological stressors, but by simple economics: honey’s too cheap so beekeepers are leaving the sector and young people are not attracted to the business. In stark contrast, numbers of hives in China and Argentina, where wages are lower, rose sharply over the same period. Dr Cunningham showed us a slide of a Chinese worker in a pear tree, hand-pollinating flowers— yes, hand-pollinating—patiently brushing the stamens of each open flower with a feather dipped in pollen. Chinese wages are low, but breeding more bees is still more efficient.
So honey bees might not be domesticated, exactly, but they are still managed, and their numbers are a function of economics.
Back to the ‘crisis’.
What people fear in a ‘bee crisis’ could be interpreted as a pollination crisis and, by extension, a food crisis. A quote, misattributed to Albert Einstein, has been doing the social media rounds. It suggests that if bees go extinct, the human race will follow after just four years.
It’s true that the most nutritious foods, those that provide our vitamins and minerals, are insect-pollinated. Cacao and coffee too. But Dr Cunningham pointed out that our staple crops, those that provide the bulk of our calories, are not dependent on bees—wheat, rice, corn and potatoes are all wind-pollinated.
So we wouldn’t starve. But there are definitely threats to bees. Threats to bee populations in Australia include habitat loss, insecticides and Varroa mite (honey bees only, and it’s not here yet).
In Australia, agriculture means patches of highly simplified landscape with, sometimes, adjacent areas of remnant forest. The forest will be home to native bees. Where Northern Hemisphere forests are predominantly wind-pollinated, Australian native forests are unusual in that they mostly comprise eucalypts (flowering trees) and most pollination is done by birds, bats and insects—but mostly bees.
So traditional fields or orchards will be pollinated by native bees. But for industrial-size farms, monocultures encompassing hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres, the farmer will need to bring hives in for the flowering period.
Bees moved from monoculture orchard to monoculture orchard with a much-restrictive diet will have weakened immune systems and will be less resistant to other threats to their populations, like pesticides and Varroa mite.
All canola crops in Australia are now grown from seeds treated with insecticide to protect the plant in its early stages. By the time the plant produces flowers, the chemical should have broken down. These pesticides are very pervasive and may have long term consequences—when they don’t kill the bee, they may still have a sub-lethal effect. Neurological symptoms mean the bees can no longer communicate important information to other bees in the hive, such as directions to food sources in the vicinity.
As for Varroa, the mite is incredibly destructive to European honey bee hives. First noted on the Korean peninsula in the 1950s, it has now spread to Europe, the US, Asia and Africa. In fact, Australia is the only unaffected bee-keeping country, ‘but it’s only a matter of time’.
And whereas beekeepers, when at home, can usually keep their hives isolated from neighbouring hives, pollination events like those annual bee conventions in almond orchards are the perfect environment for a massive-scale Varroa mite infection.
So, is there a bee crisis?
European honey bees, in Australia at least, are safe for now. Our biosecurity measures are tight and must be maintained. When Varroa eventually arrives, healthy honey bees with strong immune systems will be best prepared to face the threat. That means maintaining diverse environments, native forests—’the most obvious solution’, says Dr Cunningham, and reducing the use of insecticides.
As for native bees, no-one knows—no-one’s counting them.
Bruce Frost, whose family has been keeping bees in Australia since the 1890s, thanked Saul Cunningham and made a plea for biodiversity. Bruce cited a lack of eucalypt species—not eucalypts, of which there are plenty, but diverse species. ‘In my time on the South Coast, about 40 years, the grey ironbark has diminished in numbers and continues to diminish. It used to be one of the great pollen and honey sources, but not anymore … If we can reduce the impacts on forests in general, it will be better for bees and beekeepers—but also better for the forests.’
It should be noted that at the NSW government’s Advisory Committee on South Coast Wood Chipping, beekeepers expressed concern about loss of species diversity resulting from intensive logging. That was 40 years ago.