Bees dying around the world

The leatherwood tree, which produces food for bees, is under threat by logging.
Friday, September 19, 2014

In the past five years the global bee population has been devastated. This matters because they are critical to the food chain, pollinating 70% of our food either directly or indirectly. Besides pollinating vegetables, fruits and nuts, they also pollinate the lucerne that feeds our cattle and cotton that makes our clothes.

The US lost 60% of its bee population in 2012 and then another 40% last year. The European wild honey bees have all but disappeared.

The bees are being lost for two reasons. One is the Varroa mite, a parasite the size of a pinhead which attacks developing bee larvae.The other is Colony Collapse Disorder, which is caused from the spraying of a type of pesticide, called neonicotinoids. These have been banned in Europe but are still available in Australia.

When a colony collapses, the bees simply disappear. It is not clear why, but it is thought the pesticide affects the memory of the bees and they forget how to navigate back to the hive.

Australia is the only country that has not been invaded by Varroa. One mite would be enough to contaminate our entire bee population. The Varroa mite originated in Asia in the 1950s, then spread to Europe in the 1970s. It transmits viruses and other pathogens, which can kill the entire colony of tens of thousands of bees.

Climate change is also having a harsh impact on Australian bees. Last summer during record heatwaves in Victoria, plants reduced their nectar production leaving bees without enough to eat. Bees were also forced to spend most of their time searching for water to cool down their hives to stop the honeycomb wax from melting.

This caused a shortage of Australian honey throughout the year, driving up retail prices.

There are 1600 varieties of Australian native bees but only two are social and form hives to make honey. One bee can live for 40 to 50 days and in its lifetime makes half a teaspoon of honey.

There are three castes of bees, the queen to produce eggs, the female or worker, which is infertile, and the drone or male, whose aim in life is to find a queen to mate with. For every male there are three to four females.

The bees produce a very small amount of honey compared to the European bee, which was brought to Australia in the early days of the colony.

Tasmania is the only source of the famous leatherwood honey. Leatherwood trees are a reliable source of food for bees but are threatened by logging. The federal government’s decision to delist 74,000 hectares of World Heritage Forest will further threaten the trees.

Beekeepers in the state are now speaking out against the logging industry because it threatens the survival of the local beekeeping industry.

Bob Davey, a retired beekeeper in Tasmania, said: “The honeybee industry depends on the regularity and the continued access to the resource. The leatherwood tree is a slow growing tree and it’s an understorey tree so it’s affected by not only what happens to it but also what happens to the overstorey and the forest as a whole.

“Once you’ve clearfelled, hot-burned, sterilised the soil, and destroyed the whole of the forest floor, as soon as you’ve done that, you’ve lost that resource for 40 to 50 years.”

In Sydney, a group called the Urban Beehive has begun setting up beehives in backyards, rooftops and community gardens. Their goal is to boost natural pollination and to help maintain the genetic diversity of honeybees to protect against disease.

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