CSIRO gives bees a chance
BEES wearing high-tech microchip backpacks have been deployed as tiny warriors in the species' most desperate fight for survival yet.
This year is tipped to be devastating for just about everything bee-related: honey supplies are in drastic decline, factors including extreme weather and pesticides have massacred huge numbers of bees, beekeepers are reporting hive losses, home gardeners are eagerly searching the sky for a glimpse of one of the winged pollinators and the very future of national food pollination is under threat.
The little creatures buzz quietly under the radar, but they should command more attention, given 65% of agricultural production in Australia depends on pollination by honey bees, a natural "service" valued at more $1.7 billion annually.
As part of the CSIRO study, 5000 Tasmanian bees have been fitted with sensors measuring 2.5mm square on their backs, in a process that required them to be refrigerated to sleep, sometimes shaven and then glued with the small chips before being woken and sent to work.
Scientists will track the flight of these European honey bees to discover what affects their behaviour and productivity as pollinators, critical to the production of crops like canola, sunflower, apples, cherries and almonds.
The sting-less native bees, much smaller than honey bees, play a smaller role pollinating natives like macadamias and avocados.
The study, using "game-changing" technology, comes at the same time as news that honey stocks will be the lowest in more than a decade.
A combination of excessive heat, flood and drought has hit prime honey producing areas and led to honey supplies falling by more than 50%.
"It is a dire time for the honey industry with both apiarists and honey packers bracing themselves for the next 12 months," Australian Honey Bee Industry Council's Trevor Weatherhead said.
"We have witnessed a 'perfect storm' of negative weather conditions.
"Domestic Australian supermarket retail sales for honey are in excess of $150 million a year and honey is a growing multi-million dollar source of export revenue for Australia.
"Conditions will once again return to normal, but like any agriculturally-based business, during this period there will be a number of hardships that will have to be endured."
Glasshouse Mountains man Bruce Hibbett, a
Queensland Beekeepers Association committee member and chairman of the Stanley River Branch, said 2014 would be memorable for all the wrong reasons.
"I think it will be a wake-up call for the government to let them know how serious this is to the industry and the nation," he said.
"Without the bees, we won't have any crops or anything.
"Everything might be rosy around Canberra but you've got to get out in the bush to let them know how bad things are," he said.
"The government can help the beekeepers out a bit more in situations like we're in now. Many of us are self-employed and we can't get unemployment benefits. Once we run out of money, we're broke; and a lot of beekeepers will be facing that very shortly."
Mr Hibbett runs 800 hives in the central highlands and is spending thousands of dollars a week on diesel fuel, as he moves his bees around to areas with better food sources.
"The price of diesel is a big killer. It's no trouble to burn $1000 in one night shifting bees around just to try to keep them alive.
"They need flowers and pollen, as well as nectar. But the heatwave has wrecked everything. It's so dry.
"What is flowering isn't producing any nectar and it's going to be a very hard battle to keep the bees alive."
Mr Hibbett welcomed the CSIRO study, as it may shed some light on the sometimes mysterious reasons why some swarms disappear.
Secretary of the Sunshine Coast Beekeepers Group Merv Wruck said he'll be watching the study results with interest, remarking on the "magic" technology being used.
He also wants the threat from pests taken seriously by government.
"Biosecurity is a very important thing, and we've got to keep the Varroa mite out of Australia," he said.
"When it gets in, it will devastate us.
"We also worry about the small hive beetle."
COUNCIL LAWS ON BEES
No bee hives on lots smaller than 400 sqm.
No more than two hives on a lot greater than 400 sqm and less than 1000 sqm.
No more than five bee hives on a lot greater than 1000 sqm and less than 2000 sqm.
DAFF guidelines on beekeeping: bit.ly/1atCjpZ