Bee Buzz: Australia's invasive outbreak and the NZ chemical debate
The role of bees in horticulture is often taken for granted by the general population, but farmers themselves know just how important the insects are in ensuring reliable crops. As part of Fresh Fruit Portal's Bee Buzz, we take a look at the situation facing the little critters in Australia where they are under threat from larger competitors, while in New Zealand the effects of chemicals on bees has become a political standpoint for the Green Party.
There are few countries in the world that attach as much importance to quarantine issues as Australian farmers, even though it is often a thorn in the side of many foreign exporters to be.
Growers kicked up a storm when New Zealand apples were approved entry in August and a heavy-handed consumer scare campaign sent Chilean grape exporters packing in April, yet a very serious quarantine problem has strangely flown under the radar.
That threat is the Asian Honey Bee (AHB) and apiarists are livid at the government's response. The larger bees effectively outcompete the more smaller, more predictable crop-pollinating European Honey Bees, but the government has set a task of containment rather than eradication in the breakout zone of north Queensland.
Australian Honey Bee Council quarantine chairman Trevor Whitehead, says growers need only look at what the AHB outbreak did in the Solomon Islands to see what could be in store for them and citizens generally.
"The Solomon Islands would be the classic example, where in the early 2000s they had something like 2,000 European honey bee hives there, and about a year or so they were just about outcompeted and dropped out the bees there," he told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"The Asian Honey Bees have become a nuisance, establishing themselves in all sorts of places. For instance, in one place there were eight or nine nests in the walls of one house, they’re taking over smaller cavities, so they've got problems with people too.
"The ramifications for the agricultural industry are that there won’t be bees available to go and do the broad-acre pollination, because these Asian bees – the type we’ve got in Cairns – are not able to be kept in boxes. For instance the ones and China and Japan can, but this one can’t be."
It is estimated bee pollination contributes around US$1.2 billion to Australian horticulture each year, but if the Asian bees can't be contained and spread throughout the country, then many crops will just become commercially unviable.
"If people stop keeping European bees because of the problem with the Asian bees, then you wouldn’t have bees to go and do that sort of pollination, and a lot of the crops, for instance rockmelons (canteloupes), watermelons, there's a wide variety of crops that tend to require pollination with honey bees, that wouldn’t be able to be pollinated.
"If you take this year year in August in Victoria and New South Wales there would have been almonds, and I know one particular fella who put in 20,000 hives to pollinate his almonds, so almonds are one thing and if you don’t have bees you don’t have almonds.
"Citrus is certainly aided by bees but when you come to your export industries, you think things like onions and carrots which need a lot of bees to pollinate their seeds."
Whitehead said the AHB eradication program officially finished in March but actual activity finished in November, while at the moment officials have decided to settle on the idea that the pest cannot be driven out.
"What they’re doing at the moment is they’ve got traps on the outside of the boundary, and they’re doing surveillance within the boundary to try and contain where it’s at now. The public reports swarms or nests, and they’ll go out and destroy those, and they do a limited amount of bee lining if they find the bees and they’ll destroy the nets in those situations.
"It’s very limited compared to what it has been and in some ways it’s very disappointing that they’ve taken this attitude, because their attitude is that they can walk away from it and we should just learn to live with it.
"They put the money in but that’s tokenistic, they can say they’ve done something, but they’ve wanted to walk away from it and let the public handle it."
He says the government's attitude is that if the problem gets out of hand then people can call private pest control operators, which tends to cost between US$300 and US$400 per visit.
"For our beekeeping industry it’s the third major quarantine breach within 20 years - in 1992 we had chalk root, in 2002 we had the small hive beetle, and then we’ve got the Asian Honey Bee, and the government attitude is that if it gets in here, we’ll deal with it if we can; if we can’t we’ll walk away from it and industry has to put up with it.
"It’s my opinion that it was a quarantine breach so they should have taken more responsibility and taken more action than they have to date."
While the industry is up against the wall, Whitehead believes eradication is still possible and the amount of money involved would not be as large as the losses to crops if the pest were to spread.
The same breed of AHB is also present in Papua New Guinea.
On a more positive note, unlike other farming countries Australia is free of a major bee problem that is facing the global industry.
"There’s no colony collapse disorder in Australia. It’s never been found here in Australia."
New Zealand's chemical debate
In recent months the New Zealand Green Party has launched a heated campaign to ban neonicotinoid insecticides due to their alleged negative effects on bee populations.
MP Sue Kedgley told Radio New Zealand the insecticides affect the nervous systems of bees, highlighting that in North America and Europe there were many scientists who believed this was the cause for colony collapse disorder.
"The honey bee is so critical, it’s our whole economy. Our whole ecology, horticulture would suffer so I don’t think it should be left to beekeepers to initiate a re-assessment and pay for it," she was quoted as saying.
Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Peter Silcock agress on the relevance of bees to the country's horticultural industry, but believes insecticides are necessary to an extent.
"The value of bees to New Zealand's horticulture is almost impossible to calculate. Bees are essential to horticultural production, and for this reason, growers take extreme care to be "bee-aware" at all times," he told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"The safety of bees is already taken into account when insecticides are registered in New Zealand. If there is significant new technical information it is important for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate that and decide if a reassessment is necessary.
"Bees are very important to horticulture but we also need to produce fruit and vegetables that meet customer and importing country biosecurity requirements. While we do everything we can to minimise the use of agrichemicals, tools such as insecticides are important as they can help us achieve consistent quality and market access."
Related story: Bee Buzz: the clock is ticking for South American bee colonies