South Australian apiarists are worried their bees are being overworked trying to keep up with demand from an expanding almond industry.
- Apiarists are worried the demand for hives to pollinate almond orchards is becoming too great
- Almond bloom happens in winter when bees typically like to hibernate and conserve energy
- The almond industry says the demand will increase with new plantings and hopes beekeepers can grow to meet it
Bees are vital to the life cycle of almond orchards and are brought in during winter to pollinate trees which leads to the colourful, white bloom which occurs around August.
The process is beneficial to bees as well, with the opportunity to pollinate the orchard key to strengthening the hive.
Meningie-based apiarist Bill Brown typically sends 70-100 per cent of his hives into the Riverland each winter.
But the demand from the growing industry in SA has him concerned both he, and the bees, will struggle to keep up.
“If you put the bees under pressure for 12 months of the year it does cause the weakening of the hive,” Mr Brown said.
“Since pollination demand has become so strong we’ve just had to be very careful that we don’t extract our bees too late in the season to allow the bees to build up hive strength and enough pollen pre-winter.
Beekeepers ‘at capacity’
While the cross pollination for almond orchards benefits both the crop and bees, the timing of it is less than optimum.
Bees tend to work hard for nine months of the year along with the rest of the hive, but then during the colder months — when almond orchards bloom — they like to hibernate and conserve energy.
This means apiarists need to ensure they look after their bees in a way which makes sure they’re fit to go when almond blossom comes around.
Mr Brown said this often includes investing in technology which puts an extra expense on apiarists.
“As the almond industry expands we’re going to become a lot feeder of bees,” he said.
“Like sheep feed lots and cattle feed lots, we’re going to have to supplementary feed the bees to be able to keep them strong enough.
“Beekeepers themselves are going to have to look at different means of maintaining their hive strength pre-almond flowering.”
Australian Bee Services managing director Danny Le Feuvre said there could be issues with getting enough bees as almond plantations mature and demand for pollination continues to rise.
“Many beekeepers would say we’re at capacity now,” he said.
Almond industry hopes to grow with apiarists
The total area of almond plantings in Australia has exploded since the turn of the century, going from 3,500 hectares in 2000 to 58,000ha in 2020.
The industry is worth $1.6 billion Australia-wide, and in SA it is worth more than $220 million and creates more than 1,100 direct and indirect jobs.
Outgoing Almond Board of Australia CEO Ross Skinner said while SA producers bring in local bees during pollination as a priority, hives from interstate are used to fill the gap.
The current demand for the 2021 pollination season is around 270,000 hives across Australia, with this expected to grow to around 350,000 hives in the coming years.
“There is an opportunity for beekeepers to meet this demand for pollination services,” Mr Skinner said.
“The almond industry is certainly supportive of the beekeeping industry to increase their hives in Australia, but the big challenge is for beekeepers to gain access to floral resources.”
But Mr Le Feuvre says it is not just about being able to breed more bees.
“Access to appropriate good, high-quality resources is one of our biggest limitations.
“Almonds go for maybe three or four weeks of the year, and then we’ve got to maintain them for the rest of the year.”