Bees ‘starving’ in South Australia as erratic weather takes heavy toll on hives, honey yields
Bees are suffering from starvation and hives have died following erratic weather patterns in South Australia that have been blamed for an 80 per cent drop in honey yield.
Hot spells followed by cold and wet periods throughout spring and early summer has resulted in some plants flowering haphazardly, or not at all, leaving many bees without enough food.
Hackham apiarist Bill Hawkes has been removing hives and bee swarms on behalf of the State Government and councils for 45 years.
In an average year he will remove 20 to 30 a week, but this year he said he had been lucky to get three jobs a week, with a lot of them for European wasps.
“The weather is a big factor because that gets back to your flora and how it’s blooming and all that, but there must be something else in it,” he said.
“Bees are pretty tough and can struggle through all sorts of things, but I’ve never seen it this bad.
Government points the finger at starvation
A spokesperson for Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA) said it was aware of apiarists reporting lower-than-average bee numbers, believed to be attributed to erratic weather.
“Bees often depend on floral sources to survive and with some not available this season, bees have become more susceptible to stress-related diseases such as chalkbrood, sacbrood, nosema and European foulbrood,” she said.
“This has led to many beekeepers taking to supplementary feeding via pollen cakes or sugar syrups and fondants to maintain bee health or choosing not to extract honey.
“PIRSA has also received a number of reports on bee hive deaths, and with most linked to lack of honey, nectar and pollen in the frames, it suggests that starvation has been the primary cause of these effects.”
Dying in their boxes
Mr Hawkes said when food was plentiful, migrating bees swarmed from a hive, sending out a new queen with 30,000 young bees to land on a bush or tree before sending out scouts to find a place to live.
After being called to collect the swarm or unwanted hive, he takes it back to his property where he houses the bees in a box so a hive can be established, which he later sells.
“This year it’s hardly happening,” Mr Hawkes said.
“I probably have seven to eight empty boxes that have been here for three to four weeks with no swarm.”
Those he managed to collect and turn into hives had been weak, despite attempts to supplement the bees with food.
“I’ll go to the hive and there’s dead bees at the front door,” Mr Hawkes said.
“That means they’re weak because normally they don’t do that; they’ll keep their hive clean as a whistle.
“And there’s all this brown yuck because they’re suffering from something and they’re shitting in front of the hive.
“I’ll take the lid off and see most of the bees are dead in the bottom and you give them another day and they’re dead.”
Honey yield down 80 per cent
SA Apiarists Association president Ben Hooper said members across the state had been affected.
Honey yield was down 80 per cent from where it was this time last year, with the industry expected to decline by an average 30 per cent by the end of the season.
“If we’re unable to rebuild the bees well enough to go into next winter, and then we have a poor winter event, then we’re in trouble for the serious pollination event early in spring 2019, which could have flow-on effects,” Mr Hooper said.
The overall honey industry is expected to be down 30 per cent this year. (ABC Alice Springs: Emma Haskin)
Negative weather events had also included an abnormally warm autumn and a lack of rain for a long period, “which got the trees going early that would traditionally flower in spring”, he said.
“They started flowering, the bees worked them a bit and built up, then the cold winter hit and bees don’t do well when they’ve got too much honey in them.
“Sometimes a large amount of honey in a beehive is a bad thing during winter as it actually acts a bit like a refrigerator.
“And then it’s been a late spring and early summer that’s been abnormally wet and cold and bloody windy.
“Wind is horrific for bees.”
Pollination pressure ongoing
Mr Hooper said the horticulture industry was generally worried about the bee situation, regardless of whether they were having a good year or not.
He said there was always pressure for pollination services because the horticulture industry was growing faster than the amount of bees they could supply.
Thanks to recent rain, however, Mr Hooper has been working to supply a dryland lucerne crop close to the Coorong with bees at a time of year when he would usually be supplying irrigated lucerne.
“So there are positives and negatives,” Mr Hooper said.
“We could be going into a bumper pollination season but we just don’t know how it’s all going to fall.”
The PIRSA spokesperson said the impact on bee numbers would be not officially known until the 2019-20 bee registrations in May.
“Beekeepers concerned about hive health or how to manage their bees with current seasonal conditions should discuss it with their relevant beekeeping association or PIRSA on 8429 0872,” she said.