Honey production down as much as 70 per cent in South Australia casts fear on crop pollination

Time: 2019-05-15
Summary: South Australian beekeepers are hoping for good autumn rainfall to help bring an end to one of the "worst" seasons the industry can remember.

South Australian beekeepers are hoping for good autumn rainfall to help bring an end to one of the "worst" seasons the industry can remember.

Key points:

  • Heatwaves, lack of rain, and lack of nectar for bees contributed to bad season
  • Inadequate autumn/winter rainfall will make keeping bee numbers up for spring challenging
  • Bees are needed to pollinate food crops, such as almonds

Apiarists around the country have reported one of the worst honey seasons in recent decades, with South Australia's honey production down an estimated 50 to 70 per cent compared to this time last year.

While established beekeepers might store excess honey in a good season to meet supply during lulls, South Australian Apiarists Association (SAAA) executive committee member Michael Pitt said smaller businesses could have struggled with supply.

"For a young business that's just getting going and doesn't have a lot behind them [a 50-70 per cent drop in production] could be devastating," he said.

"There are certainly some beekeepers who would be hurting right now."

Aldinga Beach beekeeper Jill Trewartha, who has 500 hives about 45 kilometres south of Adelaide, said the business had less than a third of the honey they would usually take.

"This season has been the worst that we have experienced as beekeepers," she said.

"We started off the season by shifting our trees to the orange blossom after pollination of almonds — and without being able to do that on our truck we wouldn't have gotten any honey this season."

'We really do need rain'

A lack of rainfall meant blue gums in the area did not flower, she said, and then a string of record-setting hot days in summer left the bees "weak and vulnerable".

"We had horrendous hot days and that has really knocked the bees around," Ms Trewartha said.

"We have lost some hives from that, we lost about 20 hives … we really do need rain."

Mr Pitt said good autumn and winter rainfall was also vitally important for beekeepers who provided pollination services for the almond industry.

"It's going to be hard for beekeepers involved in pollination to get their bee numbers to an adequate strength to pollinate our food crops," he said.

"If we don't start getting some good rain to keep our bees going through winter, it just makes it really hard to keep bee numbers up to be able to have good-strength hives to do jobs like pollinating other food crops,

"It can be quite a big effect, felt quite widely in the agricultural industry."

'Erratic' nectar production

Even in the south-east Limestone Coast region, where winter and spring rainfall was high compared to other parts of the state, beekeepers reported a drop in honey production.

Mount Gambier-based beekeeper Matthew Waltner-Toews said at the start of his season, in October, he thought it was going to be a good year, but then things changed in late summer.

"Some of the things I thought that were going to flower did, but didn't produce any nectar, or if they did produce nectar it was baked out of the blossom," he said.

"My bees just started going backwards — they started eating their own honey.

"I told my distributor in Adelaide that it was probably the end of the season and he shouldn't expect too much more."

"I'm still down 20 per cent overall for what I would hope to be getting out of my hives," he said.But weeks after that call to the distributor, Mr Waltner-Toews said stringybarks in the area flowered a second time for the season, and his bees started producing honey again.

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