Laying the foundation for a prosperous honey bee and pollination industry

02.11.20

The AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Program is focused on securing a sustainable and profitable future for Australia’s honey bee and pollination industry. Chair of the industry Advisory Panel since 2017 is Dr Doug Somerville and here he shares his passion for the industry and how the Program’s research, development and extension (RD&E) achieves the best bang for buck for its levy payers.

By Dr Doug Somerville, Chair, AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Advisory Panel

I’ve been known to call the Australian honey bee and pollination industry one of the most resilient industries in Australia. In recent times we’ve seen record breaking drought, devastating bushfires across many Eastern states, a global pandemic that restricted movement between states and now what is shaping up to be a good season of honey product.

It’s hard to put into words what’s so special about beekeeping in Australia, but really it’s the symbiotic relationship between the bees and the bush. It feels like a very pure form of agriculture because it is so often about an interaction with the environment that is beyond your control. As a beekeeper you can manage the bees, but you can’t manage the native flora. A single rainfall event might turn on one species so it’s ready for bees and turn off another completely. In a typical year up to 70% of Australia’s honey crop comes from our native plants and that makes our honey unique, both in terms of taste and antimicrobial properties. Our climate and the flowering patterns of our native flora, which varies from species to species, also means our beekeepers can chase flowering events around Australia almost all year round.

There are approximately 25,000 registered beekeepers in Australia who operate around 670,000 hives. Over 500,000 of these hives are operated by commercial beekeepers with most  beekeepers in Australia operating between 400 and 800 hives. It’s these commercial beekeepers who pay the national statutory levy on honey production which was established in 1962 at the request of the Australian honey bee industry.

AgriFutures Australia then receives the RD&E component of the levy to invest in line with industry objectives set out in the AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Strategic RD&E Plan (2020-2025). In addition to the levy, AgriFutures Australia also receives matching funding from the Australian Government that is allocated to the Honey Bee and Pollination Program.

Making sure RD&E delivers value to industry

The AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Program is managed by AgriFutures Australia and is overseen by the Advisory Panel that I chair. Advisory Panel members include commercial beekeepers, researchers and others with extensive industry experience. Our role as the Advisory Panel is to keep AgriFutures Australia up to date on the state of the honey bee and pollination industry and the RD&E required to help it thrive.

We don’t just use governance and a commercial beekeeper mindset to understand the impact of the Program’s research either, we assess the benefit-cost ratio of our RD&E projects to guide the Program’s strategy and future RD&E investments. The most recent economic evaluation of the investment by AgriFutures Australia in the Honey Bee & Pollination Program between 2015 and 2019 found an estimated $4 return for every $1 invested. This assessment also informed the priorities of the latest Strategic RD&E Plan . Beekeeping is a commercial industry and we want to make sure it’s possible for our beekeepers to make a living and we have an industry that is sustainable.

Innovation to improve hive performance

Manually monitoring hives is a time-consuming part of beekeeping and pulling hives apart to check them can be hard and heavy work. That’s why one of the key objectives of the latest Strategic RD&E Plan for the Honey Bee & Pollination Program is developing new technologies that can increase productivity and profitability of beekeepers by developing strategies to reduce labour and improve early detection of pests and diseases.

One of the most exciting of the developments that the Program will explore in the next five years is using electronic nose technology to detect specific odours that are related to hive health, including queen bee status and the presence of diseases. We know the e-nose has the potential to change the industry, but we need to identify the specific odour signals and program the electronic nose accordingly. Then we have to make sure the technology is affordable for our beekeepers. We’re also looking closely at remote monitoring technology for checking on hives and how we can make that work effectively for beekeepers.

Knowing where our honey comes from and understanding its health benefits

Honey has always been delicious but it’s only in recent years that we’ve come to recognise its medicinal properties and health benefits. With this knowledge it’s become more important than ever that the industry can provide assurance about the provenance of honey and that consumers can learn about the different properties of our different Australian honeys.

There is a research project that was conducted by the NSW Department of Primary Industries, supported by the Honey Bee & Pollination Program, that identified and reviewed analytical techniques that could determine honey chemistry. Based on this research we’ve also prioritised the establishment of a database of Australian honeys that reflects their true variability in terms of chemical composition, antimicrobial properties and other qualities has become a new priority for the Program.

We’re also funding another exciting research project with the University of Technology, Sydney which is further increasing the health value of honey by demonstrating that some Australian eucalypt honeys have a positive impact on human gut health.

This evolution of our honey from breakfast food to superfood, or even medicine, has the potential to be a major boost for the profitability of the Australian honey bee industry. Australian beekeepers are proud of their honey, it’s some of the purest in the world and it’s unique thanks to our unique flora, and that’s a message we want to be able to share with consumers.

Bringing people into the industry and remaining focused on pest and disease prevention

As well as technological innovation and further exploring honey’s health properties, the AgriFutures Honey Bee & Pollination Program has a focus on building human capacity by bringing new people into the industry to conduct research and providing training and support to future industry leaders.

There has been a lot of great work done to date on improving the productivity of our bees and the health of our hives so that continues to be a key objective for the RD&E supported by the Program. Similarly, we are focused on remaining vigilant about pest incursions, particularly foreign pests like Varroa mite, and keeping up the good work in reducing the incidence and impact of pests and diseases alike.

Our focus on the Honey Bee & Pollination Advisory Panel is to make sure we deliver for commercial beekeepers. We are prioritising and making recommendations for RD&E investment that will benefit the industry and make sure it is positioned strongly for growth and prosperity. The combination of the adaptability of beekeepers and the innovative research being undertaken means the future looks bright indeed for Australia’s honey bee and pollination industry.