ALL ABUZZ: Apiarist James Creagh pictured at his Lillian Rock farm with a frame from a hive. The frame is part-filled with honey and some of the bees cling to it as James removes it from the hive.
ALL ABUZZ: Apiarist James Creagh pictured at his Lillian Rock farm with a frame from a hive. The frame is part-filled with honey and some of the bees cling to it as James removes it from the hive. Cathy Adams

Where's the honeybees?

THE DECLINE of honeybees around the world continues to puzzle scientists.

But this much is certain: Without these pollinators, we would face a global food crisis of huge proportions.

"Most agriculture depends on bees," says apiarist James Creagh of Lillian Rock.

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Stephen Ware, executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council agrees: "Apples, pears, watermelons, veggie crops...they all need bees."

So do Northern Rivers' crops such as macadamias, blueberries and avocados.

In fact Australian scientist Dr Denis Anderson has estimated that the global pollination industry provided by honeybees is worth $100 billion and, without it, a third of the world's food supply would be lost.

But honeybees, the workers of the crop world and the producers of honey, are facing "multiple problems" that are causing their decline, in Australia and around the world, says Stephen.

Right here, the introduced small hive beetle is a real threat to colony numbers.

Other challenges include a new generation of pesticides called neonicotinoids, GM crops, migratory bee keeping, pollution, electromagnetic radiation, climate change and more, say apiarists.

But, the biggest threat globally is the varroa mite which, as yet, has not managed to penetrate our shores.
"I go to bed at night praying we don't get it here," says Stephen.

"Our trading partners, including New Zealand and the United States, already have it and it has devastated the industry there."

Says James: "Australia is the only continent that has been spared the mite but it may soon be here."

He explains that varroa mite is a very small parasite that attaches to the body of the bee and weakens it. "A serious infestation of the mites in a colony will weaken and/or kill the hive."

It has been speculated that the varroa mite has been the cause of something called colony hive disorder or colony collapse disorder.

"This is a relatively recent phenomenon where all the bees in colony disappear," says James.

While Australia doesn't have varroa mite yet what it does have, in far North Queensland, is the Asian honeybee, a natural carrier of the varroa mite.

"If the Asian bee, that could bring with it the varroa mite, does make it to our area we need to be prepared," says James.

"According to the experience in Europe and the United States, the best way of being prepared is to build up the numbers to counter the expected loss.

"This includes planting a range of bee-friendly plants for a year-round supply of nectar and pollen and start to consider different ways of keeping bees."

While the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation has recently completed a report into the Asian honeybee incursion, with the aim of influencing decision makers who can drive an elimination campaign.

Meanwhile beekeepers are taking their own stand against varroa mite.

Stephen says: "At the moment we have several risk aversion measures in place.

"These include a sentinel hive program at selected ports and airports and a number of beekeepers having their hives tested annually for the mite."

James says: "Australian food growers depend mostly on feral honey bees and native bees for pollination so there will need to be a shift towards managed bee hives as wild colonies will have no protection from the mite.

"With managed hives the varroa mite can be treated with chemicals, that being the most successful method and the good news is that the chemicals are based on formic acid that is acceptable in organic beekeeping overseas."

European countries have now taken action on pesiticides that are implemented in colony collapse disorder, says Jo Immig, of the National Toxics Network.

"They have suspended neonicotinoids which are deadly nervous system poisons to bees."

She says some are calling colony collapse disorder "the canary in the coal mine" - a dire warning to us all about the way we treat nature.

Some bee facts:

  • The honeybee's wings stroke 11,400 times per minute, thus making their distinctive buzz.
  • A honeybee can fly for up to 10 km and as fast as 24 kmh.
  • The average honeybee will actually make only one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • It takes 30g of honey to fuel a bee's flight around the world.
  • A honeybee visits 50 to 100 flowers during a collection trip.
  • A colony of bees consists of 20,000-60,000 honeybees and one queen.
  • Worker honeybees are female, live 6 to 8 weeks and do all the work.
  • The queen bee lives for about 2-5 years and is the only bee that lays eggs. She is the busiest in the summer months, when the hive needs to be at its maximum strength, and lays up to 2500 eggs per day.
  • The male honeybees are called drones and they do no work at all, have no stinger, all they do is mate.
  • Honeybees communicate with one another by "dancing".

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