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Worrying buzz on the vanishing of honeybees in a changing world

An apiarist’s life can be a sweet one. But in recent times, as beekeepers observe up close the fallout of bushfires, habitat loss and the unhooking of seasonal systems, it is increasingly distressing. Grace Aicken reports.

Worrying buzz on the vanishing of honeybees in a changing world

Apiarist Jodie Goldsworthy says the destruction caused by Australia’s "Black Summer" of 2019-20 will have a major effect on the ability of trees to produce flowers that beekeepers may access. Image: Supplied/Beechworth Honey

Words by Grace Aicken
 

Jodie Goldsworthy doesn’t know a life without beekeeping. A fourth-generation beekeeper, her great grandfather, grandfather and parents all made their living as beekeepers in the goldfields of Beechworth.

Despite this, Goldsworthy never dreamed of becoming a beekeeper herself until her husband Steve announced his interest in the honey business.

In 1993, supported by 130 years of her family’s apicultural knowledge, the couple founded Beechworth Honey. Today, their label is a familiar fixture on supermarket shelves and in household pantries.

“We started with our little tank that had a little tap on the bottom,” Goldsworthy says.

“We would pour the honey into jars and put the lids and labels on by hand. Everything started off being done completely manually.”

With honeybees responsible for pollinating two-thirds of Australia’s agriculture, Jodie Goldsworthy says “bees are absolutely fundamental to our food security”. Images: Supplied/Beechworth Honey

With honeybees responsible for pollinating two-thirds of Australia’s agriculture, Jodie Goldsworthy says “bees are absolutely fundamental to our food security”. Images: Supplied/Beechworth Honey

Beechworth Honey has grown to become Australia’s largest family-owned beekeeping and honey company. Underpinning the brand’s philosophy is the commitment by the couple to promoting bee health and supporting beekeepers, issues which have become increasingly urgent.

Last year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation sounded the alarm over the global decline of bee populations, declaring that these now loomed as a serious threat to plantlife critical to human health and wellbeing. Bees are suffering the fallout of what Goldsworthy describes as “complex, cumulative and interrelated threats”, which is why apiarists and scientists globally are deeply concerned.

Extreme weather events driven by climate change are wreaking havoc on bee populations, bringing their fate into question. With honeybees responsible for pollinating two-thirds of Australia’s agriculture, Goldsworthy says, “bees are absolutely fundamental to our food security”.

The day Goldsworthy speaks to The Citizen* she is driving four hours to Canberra where she will meet the Australian Food and Grocery Council to discuss bees in relation to the climate crisis and food security.

Climate change is having a major impact on Australia’s agricultural and beekeeping industries. Rising temperatures are causing plants to flower earlier, says Professor Ary Hoffman from the University of Melbourne’s School of Bioscience.

“That’s a real problem,” he says. “It creates de-synchronisations between insects and plant development which can reduce the success of pollination events.”

If a tree that traditionally blooms in spring begins flowering earlier, the weather may be too cold for bees to fly and gather nectar. Equally, if a tree that flowers in February begins blossoming earlier in hotter temperatures, it is likely there will be a lot less free flowing nectar.

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Goldsworthy is seeing these disconnects play out in real-time. Compared to her parents’ day, “trees are not flowering at the same time of year you used to be able to set your clock on,” she says.

For beekeepers whose livelihoods depend on bees producing honey, the consequences are very real.

“We’re seeing trees flowering but bees not actually collecting any honey from them because there’s just not the secretion of nectar that would normally be expected,” she says.

This isn’t the only climate factor damaging to bees. “The other obvious effect on bees would be drought,” says Hoffman.

“Under dry conditions there is less food for bees available. Bee populations start to decrease and consequently there are less bees available for pollination.”

Australia’s catastrophic 2019-20 bushfire season has only exacerbated these challenges.

Goldsworthy says the destruction caused by what is now etched in modern history as Australia’s “Black Summer” will have a major effect on the ability of trees to produce flowers that beekeepers may access.

“Those forests will take a minimum of ten years to recover before they will produce prolific flowers and enough pollen and nectar for beekeepers to harvest.

 “In the meantime, we have to try put our hives in other places but this is not always possible.”

One of the delights of beekeeping is being able to work outdoors, Goldsworthy says. But in the course of her regular visits to hives scattered in the bush she has witnessed the devastating impact extreme weather events are having on Australia’s native bushlands. A few kilometres outside of Beechworth, Goldsworthy remembers what were once magnificent 100-year-old Red Box eucalypt trees that over time have become damaged by drought.

“They’re dying because those landscapes are much drier than they’re meant to be,” she says.

This has a material impact on honey production for Australian beekeepers who rely on native eucalypt forests for most of the honey produced.

Eucalypts are highly susceptible to a small change in climate. “Two to three degrees has a pretty major impact,” Goldsworthy says.

“With the temperatures we’re expecting within the next 40 to 50 years, we can expect a pretty significant change in the distribution of those eucalypt species.”

Of the world’s 25,000 bee species, almost 2000 are native to Australia. In some cases, native bees are better pollinators than European honeybees, especially for crops like tomatoes and capsicum which benefit from buzz pollination, a technique where bees vibrate their flight muscles to shake hard-to-reach pollen loose. European honeybees can’t do it, and they’re a growing threat to the native pollinators.

“In the alpine region of Victoria, we are seeing European bees entering the ecosystem at greater numbers because conditions are now extremely warm,” says Hoffmann.

The climate crisis could allow an invasive species like European bees to displace native pollinators creating a negative effect on those ecosystems, he says.

Climate change is not the only thing devastating bee populations. Many pests and diseases outside of Australia are responsible for colony collapse syndrome, the sudden death of hives.

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“The deadly varroa mite has roughly halved the bee population in the United States,” Goldsworthy says.

Apiarists are the other casualty of these “cumulative threats”.

“It’s really changed the ability of beekeepers to find spots where there are good sources of nectar to allow them to keep their hives thriving like they used to.”

In the 10 years to 2015, the number of commercial beekeepers in Australia declined by 25 per cent. Around 1400 commercial beekeepers remain in Australia.

“When you think about it, that’s not very many people responsible for underpinning food security here in Australia,” Goldsworthy says.

A 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation points to a projected global population of 9.7 billion by 2050.  It argues with the fallout of climate change on yields and the diminishing quality of land and water resources “changing course is critical – business as usual is no longer an option”.

As the world’s population continues to grow, there will be increased demand for insect-pollinated foods such as nuts, avocados, kiwifruit and coffee.

“With our growing human population, it’s pretty clear we couldn’t exist if we just maintained our bee population,” says Goldsworthy. Supporting beekeepers is essential to ensuring our food security.

“Buying Australian honey is really fundamental,” she says. Some cheap imported goods are labelled “honey” even though they have been mixed with sweeteners such as rice or corn syrup.

Goldsworthy urges shoppers to be prepared to pay a little bit more and make sure their honey is from a reputable Australian source.

“That’s really fundamental to keeping beekeepers in business which is ultimately what keeps bees pollinating our food crops.”

*Editor’s note – some interviews pre-dated the coronavirus lockdown.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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