It’s an ambitious target, but there are caveats.
One of these is the humble honey bee, the unsung engine-room of the food industry’s pollination requirement. A 2018 study from Curtin University found that 53 crops in Australia’s agriculture industry depend on bees for pollination. With a wide range of other crops showing increased quality and yields where bees contribute, the Curtin study estimated that honey bees contributed $14.2 billion a year in economic value.
Put simply, Australia may not have enough bees for the pollination task implied by the agricultural industry’s target.
A beekeeper tends to bee hives.
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“In August, the almond industry required about 240,000 honey bee hives for pollination, which is more than half the number of managed honey bee hives in Australia,” says Fiona Chambers, chief executive officer of the Wheen Bee Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes awareness of the importance of bees for food security, and raises funds for research that addresses the national and global threats to bees.
“And they’re expecting within the next year or two that they will need 300,000 hives.”
The almond trees’ pollination window is about six weeks; beekeepers, often from Queensland and northern New South Wales, are contracted to bring their hives to the almond-growing region along the Murray River (68% of the trees are in Victoria).
Pollination broker Trevor Monson says that this year, for the first time, the almond trees “almost ran short of bees to pollinate them.”
He says the problem is that there are now competing centres of demand for the bees’ services.
“You have thousands of hectares of avocadoes being planted in Queensland, and they flower at the same time as almonds. You have the blueberry industry, which has expanded enormously in the last five to ten years in the northern part of the country, and they flower at the same time as almonds.
“On top of that, you now have the macadamia industry in Queensland and northern New South Wales burgeoning,” Monson says.
Australia simply needs more bees. “I believe that we can breed the bees and meet the numbers required, but the drought in New South Wales and Queensland has made it harder to breed bees. Unless that changes, we could be under pressure,” Monson says.
For the food industry, pollination security is “as important as water,” says Chambers. Almond producer Webster Limited – which produces about 200 tonnes of almonds each year – recently paid $8.2 million for Australian Rainforest Honey's 5,500 bee hives. Last year, it cost Webster $340,000 to hire the bees to pollinate its almond trees, so the company bought its own.
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Chambers says pollination has not been factored-in to the NFF’s $100 billion target.
“Australia urgently needs a National Pollination Strategy,” she says. “We need to identify the national pollination requirement and how many hives do we need, where are the clashes, can we do it? The concern is that there won’t be enough honey bees to pollinate our food crops, and the flow-on effects from pollinator decline are massive,” she says “But we’re not having that conversation.”
With Australian Pollinator Week concluding on November 17, she hopes that conversation is starting. Meanwhile, Wheen Bee Foundation is working towards a certification program, at both ends of production, where farmers achieve certification for farming in a bee-friendly manner, that encourages bees and other pollinators to live on their properties; and where food producers, in return for a small levy, carry certification on their packaging to show that they have locked-in their pollination security. There are two such schemes in the United States, the Bee Friendly Farming certification, and the Bee Better Certified seal.
“That’s definitely where we want to head,” Chambers says. “We’re having discussions with both groups, to look at which organisation we partner with – it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel if we can work with one of the existing US programs.”
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