From Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), 2021.
Beekeepers are reminded to check their apiaries to ensure they are compliant with legislation and the Australian Honey Bee Industry Biosecurity Code of Practice.
While many beekeepers continue to deliver healthy pollination-ready hives, the quality and consistency in others varies and at times questionable.
Many of the food crops we rely on are either greatly benefitted by, or completely dependent on, insects for pollination.
Honey bees are among the few commercial, mobile pollination services in the world and have become an essential part of modern agriculture.
The average honeybee can visit and pollinate more than 2,000 flowers in one day, greatly increasing the chances of a plant reaching its reproductive potential, which means more fruit, vegetables and seed production.
Some crops, including almonds, apples, pears and cherries, depend almost totally on these pollination services for fruiting.
For many other crops, such as broccoli, carrots, clover, lucerne and canola, insect pollination is essential for seed production.
For a long time, many crops have benefitted from Western Australia’s healthy population of feral honey bees.
However, the demand for paid pollination services has been rising, with the growth of several high value horticultural crops, as well as our improved appreciation of how pollination can increase crop yields, quality, and profits.
From inspections back in 2021, WA’s orchards and crops have been buzzing with activity. Growers across the States have been welcoming truckloads of bees hoping to ensure their future harvest maximises their production.
Throughout spring 2021, DPIRD apiary officers James Sheehan (Figure 1) and Jessica Moran (Figure 2) have visited several horticultural operations across the State for bee biosecurity inspections.
During these visits, the officers performed hundreds of brood inspections to assess colony health, conducted drone uncapping (Figure 3) and alcohol washing for external mite surveillance, and collected honey samples for American foulbrood (AFB) and European foulbrood (EFB) testing. WA remains free from EFB and this testing was for surveillance only.
The officers also completed compliance checks for registration, branding, and apiary signage, which are all requirements of the Bee Industry Biosecurity Code of Practice.
For the most part, the inspections painted a positive picture for the bee and pollination industry – healthy bees and happy growers.
However, a few areas for improvement were identified:
- Lack of branding or failure to strike-out former brands was one of the more common issues. Beekeepers are reminded that these offences carry penalties as branding hives is a legal requirement. Correct branding is crucial for identification of ownership and helps biosecurity officers to trace outbreaks during an incident.
- Dead-out hives in the apiary at this time of year – let alone delivered to a pollination contract – certainly raised a few eyebrows. We understand issues around swarming, queenlessness and/or understrength colonies are common beekeeping challenges. However, dead outs, delivered by paid, professional beekeepers were disturbing discoveries…
- Exposed, used hives are a biosecurity risk. It is an offence to leave hives, parts of hives including frames, combs, honey or beeswax, or appliances containing honey exposed to robber bees. Diseases, such as AFB, can quickly spread through bees robbing from these exposed materials so do yourself and your pollination neighbours a favour by keeping dead-out and spare hives closed (bee-proof).
Pros & Cons
Although paid pollination services can be a profitable opportunity, it is important to weigh the pros and cons and the value to your business.
This will mean different things for different beekeepers.
For some there may well be more profit elsewhere, for others it may be some reliable cashflow and or good diversification to your business income.
Pollination events are high-density, high-intensity beekeeping activities. Contracts often bring numerous beekeepers into close proximity and can present some serious practical challenges to hive management and biosecurity risk.
While the size of our industry pales in comparison to the pollination activities on the east coast, we should learn from their experiences to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
For example, it is important to recognise that clustering large numbers of hives on resource-limited crops (i.e. at the beginning and end of flowering periods) can lead to superspreader events.
These conditions promote robbing behaviour that can quickly spread disease from weak hives and dead-outs.
For example, hundreds of hives were destroyed at South Australia’s almond pollination in 2018 after one contracted beekeeper brought an AFB-infected hive to an orchard.
Engaging in pollination services means bearing responsibility for maintaining the highest biosecurity standards.
When considering whether to pursue a pollination contract it is important to consider what you walk away with after the pollination ends.
Yes, you may receive a fat cheque, but what about your bees?
It goes without saying; crops vary in nutritional quality and season.
Some crops may help to build bees up, e.g. canola and watermelons provide large quantities of pollen (Figure 4).
Other crops may leave weak colonies due to nutritional deficiencies or swarming challenges – an important consideration if the crop is far from home, limiting your ability to monitor and manage colonies.
These are all pros and cons every beekeeper must weigh up when deciding to pursue pollination work and calculating the pollination rate.
So before you jump into pollination – pause – take the time to understand your commitments, possible consequences, and the expectations of the grower. Fulfilling pollination contracts and delivering high-quality colonies is a big responsibility but the rewards can be very sweet (Figure 5).
For further information about pollination agreements, visit www.beeaware.org.au/pollination/pollination-agreements/ and watch Agriculture Victoria’s video about pollination biosecurity https://vimeo.com/594984588/ebba59116b
Authors: James Sheehan and Jessica Moran, project officers (bees), Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, Western Australia (DPIRD)