Supported by AgriFutures Australia through funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s Rural R&D for Profit program, the project Plan Bee (Honey bee genetic improvement program) is a collaboration between nine different stakeholder groups across Australia – from researchers, to queen bee breeders to farmers.
AgriFutures Australia Project Manager, Paul Blackshaw said with the pollination of crops by honey bees and production of honey worth more than $14 billion in annual economic value to Australia, it makes sense to invest in honey bee genetics.
“Honey bee genetics contribute to improvements in farm productivity and ultimately underpins a secure food industry for all Australians, so the importance of the research really can’t be overstated,” Mr Blackshaw said.
NSW Department of Primary Industries research partner Liz Frost said the need to protect Australia’s key breeding stock was further highlighted during the 2019/2020 bushfires.
“Australia currently relies on a relatively small pool of queen bee breeders, so with many breeders affected by drought and bushfires over the past 12 months access to valuable breeding stock to wider industry has been limited,” Ms Frost said.
“Further to that, there’s currently no formal database to then be able to rebuild a breeding program, so one of the key aspects of this project is to build a national database to hold all the honey bee genetic trait data that’s collected over the life of this research program,” she said.
“With livestock like dairy cattle you can breed for milk production and other specific traits, and for this industry, we’d be looking at identifying traits related to pollination, health and honey production as those are mutually beneficial attributes for both beekeepers and farmers.”
The work is a first for the Australian bee industry, and will also include estimated breeding values for honey bees, and develop and implement standardised selection methods that beekeepers can use to assess honey production, pollination, and health traits.
Researcher Dr Nadine Chapman from University of Sydney said the project has the capacity to revolutionise the queen breeding industry, with significant flow on affects to pollination services.
“This is an exciting breakaway project that differs from previous programs that while good, had a limit on the number of stock that could be included in the research process,” Dr Chapman said.
“The Plan Bee program will provide tools for individual queen breeders to help them select their own stock and really drive improvements, rather than just being focused on the stock at NSW DPI.
“We need colonies to be strong and healthy to increase their value as pollination units. Not only will we be looking at traits in specific crops – like nectar foragers versus pollen foragers – the DPI hives will enable us to collect data on pollination traits to see how they correlate with other traits.”
Dr Chapman also encouraged commercial beekeepers to get involved in the project now by completing a survey about what sorts of traits they currently look for when planning to buy queen bees.
“It’s so important to get a full industry response to ensure the work that’s invested in the breeding program matches the needs of breeders and beekeepers” she said.
“There’s no such thing as a short-term breeding program – this an opportunity to be part of a legacy project for important Australian industries.”
This project is supported by AgriFutures Australia, through funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program.
Plan Bee project partners include NSW Department of Primary Industries, University of Sydney, Better Bees (WA), Wheen Bee Foundation, Commercial beekeepers, Olam International, Monson’s Honey and Pollination, Costa Group and South Pacific Seeds Pty Ltd.
For more information about the project, visit: https://www.agrifutures.com.au/partnerships/rural-rd-for-profit-program/plan-bee/
To complete the project survey, visit: https://redcap.sydney.edu.au/surveys/?s=K98XKXNA97