A worldwide decline in bee numbers is causing concern in Australia. Domestic losses threaten the long-term production of key food crops dependent on wild bee pollination.
A recent Harvard study has found that certain insecticides – known as “neonics” – and widely used in commercial stone-fruit cropping, have been linked to mass declines in bee numbers. This led to three types of neonics being banned by the EU in 2013. Observers are calling for a similar ban on these insecticides in Australia, but Australian bees also face risks from other bio-security issues, in particular the invasion of the vorrea mite, which carries the potential to decimate existing bee populations.
Global bee populations are at risk from varying climactic disruptions. Up to 30 per cent of south-eastern Australia’s bee population, for example, were wiped out due to an intensified drought in the region last summer. In the Northern Hemisphere, however, winter conditions have been responsible for bee declines.
The cumulative effect of persistent drought, the possibility of invasion by the destructive vorreamite and contact with insecticides, has the potential to spark “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) among worker bees in Australian hives. CCD was responsible for the collapse of approximately one-quarter of all honeybee hives in the United States over the winter of 2013-14.
Honeybees are integral to Australian agriculture; pollination from bees is required for nearly two-thirds of Australian food production. Common fruit tree crops, such as apples and avocadoes, and seed crops such as canola, are particularly reliant on wild honeybee pollination.
The potential effects of dying bee populations on canola crops is concerning. Canola is not only used as an oil crop for consumption, but as a valuable rotational crop, allowing wheat farmers to maximise yields and improve soil sustainability. Australia’s vital wheat industry could be significantly affected if Australia’s bee population cannot sustain itself in the face of current threats.
There have been three parliamentary inquiries into beekeeping and pollination in the last six years. In its submission to the latest inquiry, the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AGFC) expressed concern over the absence of bees and the possible need to import alternative foreign food ingredients. The AGFC argues, in this case, that some food product manufacturers may not sustain the resulting extra costs of production, placing huge pressure on the domestic industry to stay afloat. The CSIRO also made a submission to the enquiry, describing the bee deaths as a real threat to Australia’s bee keeping and pollination industries and thus the agricultural sector.
Honey producers have seen a 50 per cent drop in production, leaving domestic producers unable to export honey in 2014. Major Australian honey producers, such as Beechworth and Capilano, have raised public concern over the food security implications of Australia’s bee shortage. Jody Goldsworth of Beechworth Honey argues that without bees, the nation’s food bowl would be reduced to grains, fish and grapes; suggesting Australian’s will be unable to maintain the quality of life currently enjoyed, nor experience the present diversity of nutritious food.
The federal government has allocated an extra $20 million in the May budget over the next four years to bio-security and quarantine arrangements. Honey producers, however, suggest the initial funding for urgently needed vorrea mite protection measures has halted at $60,000, less than half of the combined contribution of domestic beekeepers and other pollination dependent industries. The CSIRO submission seconded this point, asserting that current funding for research into the bio-security threat to Australian bees is ‘fragmented and limited’.
The importance of wild bees to the Australian food chain is undeniable. The current, and possibly worsening, bee deficit must be approached by the Australian government as an issue of primary importance. Global cases of bee decline in the US, UK and Eastern Europe confirm the widespread effects of ecological disruption to essential bee colonies. All risks to existing bee populations in Australia must be identified and acted upon, to shield the domestic market from the need to increase food imports. Without urgent intervention, current levels of domestic food production and stable food security prospects, may be at risk of decline.
Jack Di Nunzio
Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme