Australia’s rapidly growing almond industry needs more beehives. But meeting that demand is is proving a complex issue for beekeepers.
Australia’s almond industry is expecting a record crop this season, despite hail damage early on and droughts across many regions. But almond trees don’t make almonds without an essential support service: honey bee pollination.
And our almond industry is still growing. As Almond Board of Australia CEO Ross Skinner explained to ABC Rural, a lot of plantings have occurred over the past six or seven years. These are now starting to reach maturity. And that means almond growers will need more and more bees.
“I think from 2016 to 2018 we’ve seen 12,000 additional hectares added to the industry acreage,” Mr Skinner said.
“We are working with the honey bee industry to see if we can open up additional resources so that the beekeepers can increase the number of hives that are available in Australia.”
On the east coast of Australia, meeting this demand already triggers the “single biggest movement of livestock on the Australian agricultural calendar.” The Annual Bee Muster.
But the most recent muster organisers found that one in 10 bees were “weak” from malnutrition. A result of the extended drought conditions that peaked in 2018. Therein lies just one of the challenges ahead.
Challenges of Meeting Pollination Demand
- Existing commercial and even some recreational beekeepers are already under pressure to supply bees.
- The almond pollination season falls in winter, when bee colonies are at their weakest.
- Low rainfall in the preceding summer means lower bee forage (sources of pollen and nectar), which can lead to weaker colonies.
- Many Australian beekeepers had to feed their bees pollen supplements and sugar syrup to survive the drought this year.
- Beekeepers will need more access to forage sites outside of almond pollination season regardless, to sustain the increasing number of colonies required each year.
- Low forage increases disease risk. Bees may start stealing honey from weaker or old hives, which are potentially infected with disease.
- The ABC has linked this honey stealing to a regeneration of the European and American foulbrood strains in Victoria.
- As such, states need to provide biosecurity officers for bee musters. They already check thousands of hives and billions of bees across each annual bee muster/almond pollinations season.
The good news reported by ABC is that last year’s mustered bees seemed to recover from the drought effects quickly, thanks to the “high protein” pollen of the almond trees.
The test remains to get enough of the gals happily and healthily to the almond orchids season after season, across many hot and dry Australian summers ahead.