The bees' knees

Green Lifestyle

Bees play an important part in our existence by pollinating crops, but overseas diseases could threaten their happy existence in Australia.


One in three mouthfuls of our food can be attributed to bees, but they're seriously at risk.

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A global crisis called colony collapse disorder (CCD) is depleting the world’s bees.

However, Australian populations of the European honeybee (Apis mellifera, pictured right) are so healthy, they are being shipped overseas in record numbers.

The Western Australian government exports millions each year. In 2013, it shipped 40 million bees to Canada, a 50 per cent increase from 2012. Rob Manning, apiculture research officer at WA’s Department of Agriculture and Food, came up with the idea of exporting a queen, drones and workers as a package in the late 1990s and says it’s beneficial to both countries.

“Canadian beekeepers find themselves short of bees because of their harsh winters,” Manning points out. “Some of the bee diseases they have add to the mortality of bees after winter. In spring, there is much paid pollination, so the horticulturalists also need the provision of bees. We provide bees at the end of our red gum honey flow – the pollen from this species boosts the colony population. Instead of letting the surplus bees die off over winter, it is best to export them. It is a win-win situation.”

One of the main threats to bees is the varroa mite. This small arachnid has made its way through much of New Zealand since its detection in 2000, affecting honey production and crop pollination. Australia is the only beekeeping country in the world free of this damaging parasite.

“Western Australian bees are especially healthy because we don’t have the same pests and diseases as the rest of the world,” says Leilani Leyland of Bees Neez Apiary in Beechina, WA. “The eastern states have some pests like the small hive beetle and the European foulbrood, but we’re very lucky in WA. Our main diseases are American foulbrood and chalkbrood and they’re both manageable.”

Pesticide use

There has been lots of talk in the media about how insecticides, particularly neonicotinoids, affect bee populations. In May 2013, the European Commission imposed a two-year ban on three neonicotinoid pesticides that imposed “high acute risks” to bees.

Leyland believes overuse of chemicals is having dire consequences on bee colonies, and Australia needs to learn from what is happening overseas. “We don’t have the same problems they have, but we need to look at how we will manage them when they arrive,” she says. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.”

Trevor Weatherhead, long-time commercial beekeeper and executive director of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, agrees. “There is no doubt that pesticides kills bees if used improperly,” he says, confirming that CCD has not hit Australia due to the absence of the varroa mite, our bees’ strong immune systems and their ability to handle small amounts of pesticides. “The most reputable researchers will say CCD is multifactorial; it’s different factors coming together and the major one is the varroa mite and the viruses they cause.” He says Australian apiarists are divided over whether neonicotinoids affect bees.

Bee healthy

Honey production isn’t bees’ only job – one in three mouthfuls of our food can be attributed to them. Without bees’ help to distribute pollen, we would not have the vast variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts and flowers we have today, or other bee products prized for their antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and probiotic properties.

Nutritionist and author Cyndi O’Meara has never taken a commercial antibiotic and was raised in a home that used food as medicine. Honey was a staple pantry and medicinal item.

“My parents used honey like there was no tomorrow,” she recalls. “We had honey all the time, it was part of our cold remedy: the classic lemon and honey drink. A teaspoon of raw honey each day makes a brilliant probiotic.”
It’s also full of minerals, enzymes and antioxidants. But not all honeys are equal. And the benefits are not just internal. Studies show some manuka honey is successful as a topical applicant in wound care.

Jules Galloway, naturopath and health coach, has worked in aged care and has seen the positive results of using manuka honey for wound healing. “The results are amazing. The manuka honey helps kill the bacteria, prevent infection and encourages the wound to heal naturally, which traditional antibacterial preparations don’t do,” he says.

As for the health of Aussie bees themselves, their success can be attributed to attentive beekeepers and our bio-security and quarantine methods, but we can all do our bit to help them (see below).

How you can help:

- Buy raw, organic honey – local if possible.
- Never destroy a hive – call a beekeeper.
- Let busy bees work.
- Provide water for bees in a shallow gravel birdbath.
- Don’t spray pesticides.
- Plant bee-friendly gardens with native flowering plants, fruits and vegetables.
- Host a hive or become a beekeeper – but be aware of local council laws, as beekeeping is banned or restricted in some places.
- Although they produce less or no honey, native Australian bees can be a valuable addition to your garden – and some are stingless! Visit www.aussiebee.com.au for more info.