Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Bee Teams in the Food Bowl

By Jane Dixon

Apiarists and conservationists are at loggerheads, with implications for food security and the fate of indigenous species.

With more than one-third of the world’s crops dependent on animal pollination, widespread declines in bee colonies over the past 30 years – attributed to diseases, industrial agriculture and urbanisation – are causing alarm among food security experts. In Australia another threat is posed by conservationists who consider the most common pollinator, the European honeybee, to be a pest.

More than 60% of beekeepers use public land for honey production, with almost one-quarter of Australia’s honey produced from state forests. In pursuit of an ecosystem that consists only of native flora and fauna, governments have been lobbied to phase out apiary access to forests and national parks.

From the commercial beekeeper’s perspective, the actions of conservationists represent the latest serious challenge to the viability of Australian apiary. From a public health perspective, this policy shift could diminish Australia’s capacity to supply many of its own horticultural foods.

The problem for nature conservationists centres on the European honeybee, Apis mellifera, which is claimed to be the most critical of all insect pollinators. Based on thousands of years of accumulated knowledge, this honeybee is efficiently used by apiarists to target crops at the optimum time, place and scale of coverage. “Wild” pollinators (primarily indigenous bees) are less efficient pollinators but are more significant because of vastly greater numbers.

Sources of bee nutrition vary according to habitats, climatic conditions and genus. Australia’s native forests of flowering eucalypts, native banksia and melaleucas provide the European honeybee with the richest diet on earth.

More than 1500 indigenous bee strains, and other unique flora and fauna, are present in native forests. Conservationists view the European honeybee as a pest, akin to other exotic fauna including rabbits, and want to phase out apiarist access to native forests for a few weeks each year (eucalypt flowering is short-lived and highly weather-dependent).

Conservationists claim that apiarist honeybees escape and become feral, taking over the nesting sites of indigenous and endangered animals and interfering with native pollination. Further, they consider apiarist trucks a risk because they can destroy vegetation and carry plant diseases.

Debate by Australian governments regarding bees is too narrowly cast in terms of the economic value of pollinated agriculture to the national economy and the economic cost of biosecurity containment. Little is said about other benefits, including biodiversity stewardship, public health and the role that beekeeper networks play in rural and urban communities.

In terms of biodiversity, all bees add to stocks of non-edible plant biodiversity through pollination. Plant bio­diversity contributes to productive agro-ecology conditions through settling soils, water retention, local area cooling and carbon sinks. For this reason bees are often referred to as a key ecosystem service. By adding to the stocks of biodiversity, beekeeping enhances food diversity and human health.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has asked: “What should be done in those rare circumstances when invasive species provide valued ecosystem services or support threatened and endangered species?” In Victoria, a co-existence approach is evolving between forest and park users: timber industries, conservation, tourism and commercial apiary, although apiarists feel that the other users have priority.

In this context the concept of sustainability use as a conservation strategy becomes relevant. This concept was initially raised in a 1980 report, World Conservation Strategy, sponsored by the International Union of Conservation of Nature, the United Nations Environment Program and the World Wildlife Fund. It offers a point of distinction to strict quarantining of the environment for those concerned with environmental governance. It also bolsters thinking in relation to ecosystem service management and markets.

Due to a host of factors, including diminishing access to forests and parks necessary to maintain hives and produce honey, the small commercial apiarist who has serviced Australian agriculture for almost 200 years is becoming an extinct species. A national assessment of the activities of registered apiarists who use forests and other conservation areas while providing a potentially valuable ecosystem services is long overdue.

Jane Dixon is a Senior Fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University.