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These Honeys Are Doing It Tough

by Maria Taylor

While Australia’s honey bees provide $1.7 billion value in pollination services to Australian horticulture and agriculture, when the Bulletin visited commercial beekeepers, the Kershaw family, the main concern was where the bees’ next meal would come from.

The Kershaws have been building up their apiary and honey ‘factory’ for four generations a little north of Sutton with 2000 hives now in need of feeding and tending. The next day they would be off to seek nectar for the bees, whether it was another canola crop or bush tucker in a state forest.

The apiary grew from great grandfather’s “little veggie garden” in Sutton and grandfather Sterling developed it into a commercial business.

Sterling’s grandson James, who now runs the business with his father Laurie, uncle Dave and brother Matthew, said constant movement is the beekeepers’ life, but this season is more worrying than most.

Summer heatwaves, warmer winters and other shifting weather patterns, have led to early flowering or no flowering of gums. A shortage of the beekeeper’s staple, Salvation Jane (Patterson’s Curse to others), due to drought and enthusiastic weed control by pastoralists has also contributed to the worsening food shortage over the past five years.

Canola crops are an important staple in this area. There is increasing international alarm about the negative impact on bees and other insects of the neonicotinoid systemic pesticides on canola and other crop seeds, or sprayed aerially. But James said that in this area, if you don’t work canola you don’t have anything reliable.

 Flowering tricky in changing climate

This season, the gum trees “haven’t flowered at all” he said. The flowering is cyclical over seven years, he said, but it’s unusual to have all species off their flowering cycle at once.

Neighbouring Palerang commercial beekeepers the Bingley family agreed in a recent newspaper article that it was a difficult season. They said they work their bees within a 400 kilometre radius of Canberra and that a bee visits up the 500 flowers to fill its honey sack.

Local beekeepers are still better off than many beekeepers nationally who are not producing honey at all. Fires, floods and heatwaves have all taken their toll, particularly where temperatures on average are higher.

Honey production at 20 year low

While the industry is now worth $88 million a year according to a new report by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, nationally honey production has fallen by half in recent years and is at a 20 year low, according to the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, blaming drought, delayed crop flowering and chemical sprays.

If bees have problems in the current climate, so will the rest of agriculture and horticulture. Most Australian crops need the industrious bee for pollination.

In a very real sense, ‘Bees R Us’ (as well as being a product label for Braidwood area beekeeper Scott Williams, featured in our September issue). Williams discussed another looming threat, the Varroa Mite, which has decimated hives around the world, leaving Australia as the sole ‘clean’ country to date.

James Kershaw said beekeepers can live with Varroa, but it means using chemical controls, something not desirable for the food supply.

Amongst his other duties, James is the youthful president of the southern NSW branch of the NSW Apiarist Association. The association includes 10 commercial growers and the rest hobbists, now numbering some 200 in the Canberra area.

Urban sprawl, whether Canberra’s creeping suburbs or Palerang rural residential homesteads taking over pastures and bushland, pose another challenge.

And the average age of beekeepers also worries James. He and his brother are not the norm. The average age is more likely to be someone in their 50s, he said. Where is the next generation of beekeepers? Will hobbists step up to a labour and infrastructure intensive business? The Kershaws did it over generations.

On the bright side, James said that Australia is still better off than the US, where on a recent study tour he observed first hand the intensively-farmed, mono-culture and chemical-laden cropping and bee industries, also bedevilled by Varoa Mite and the loss of bee food habitat.

He shook his head recounting his drive across what was once conservation prairie with flowering plants, recently ploughed up for cornfields for ethanol production. Corn is “bad for bees” and honey production. “I drove for four days straight through a sea of cornfields,” he said. Then he took this reporter on a tour of the honey extraction plant, saying the family is still undecided where they would take their bees for a feed the next day.

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