Bee population declining

LOCAL food supplies are under increasing threat because the area’s bee population is experiencing ongoing decline, claims a lifelong apiarist.

The local industry expert, who asked not to be named, said the area between Tamworth and Toowoomba had lost more than 35% of its bee population in the past five years.

And he believed that a common chemical used by domestic and commercial gardeners – a neonicotinoid insectide – was partly to blame.

However, a spokesman for the Department of Primary Industries has rejected his claim, saying bee populations fluctuate naturally depending on availability of food sources, and that he is unaware of a substantial downturn in hive numbers.

Dr Doug Somerville, a technical specialist in honey bees, said Australia had seen major die-offs of bees historically, and he did not believe this was connected to pesticides, or something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that is being seen in the United States and Europe.

Typically bees become disorientated and do not return to their hives, or are struck down by viruses and fungal disease.

Scientists have argued between themselves about the disorder, with no one cause being pinpointed.

However it was reported in January,by Britain’s Independent news-paper, that American scientists have found a new generation of pesticides are making honeybees far more susceptible to disease, even at tiny doses.

The study by researchers at Penn State University, raised questions about the substance used in the bee lab’s experiment, imidacloprid, which was Bayer’s top-selling insecticide in 2009.

Bayer, the German chemical giant which developed the insecticides and makes most of them, insists that they are safe for bees if used properly.

Dr Somerville said Australia did not face the problems apiarists had faced in the United States with a parasite called varroa, which he said was partially responsible for a significant decline in hives there.

He also blamed cheap honey from China and India for a smaller number of apiarists in the US keeping bees.

As for insecticides, he said: “Obviously they’re active on insects.”

And, for that reason, he didn’t like to see any sprayed on bees.

In a report published on its website, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority said neonicotinoids were widely used in Australia without Australia experiencing CCD.

However, it added that “neonicotinoid products contain specific label instructions that may, for example, require users not to spray plants in flower while bees are foraging.

"Where necessary such instructions can be extensive and detailed and include instructions relating to managed bee hives, it said, and were legally enforceable under state law."

It added: “Should the regulatory setting nonetheless be continually revised? Yes.

"The APVMA will continue to follow research around the world and consider decisions taken by other regulators, while looking at new information.”

The local industry expert is urging farmers and apiarists to come forward and report bee losses to the APVMA.

“We need bees to pollinate berries, fruit, nuts, most of the foods we like to eat,” he said.

“Without them we’re stuffed, so I hope people like eating gruel.”

Bees contribute to the pollination of seed and food crops to an estimated value of $1.76 billion a year, said Dr Michael Hornitzky, principal research scientist at Elizabeth Mac-Arthur Agricultural Institute.

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