Australian crops at risk from reliance on wild bees

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 17th August 2010

Spoon with syrupA report released yesterday by the RIRDC highlights the vulnerability of Australia’s European honeybee population, and the corresponding risk to 65% of the nation’s crops, which rely on these insects for pollination.

Australia is one of the last countries in the world to resist an outbreak of the highly destructive Varroa mite, which would decimate wild honeybee colonies, in turn devastating producers who rely on them to pollinate their crops.

The new report, Pollination Aware, consolidates available information and for the first time puts a value on pollination services for 35 different commodity groups, across fruits, vegetables and pastures, by analysing the effect of honeybees on production in these industries.

Some industries, such as almonds, apples, pears and cherries, rely almost totally on honeybees for fruit and nut production.

Without pollination by wild European honeybees, Australia would require 480,000 colonies of honeybees would be needed to provide pollination services every September. Peak demand could lift this to 750,000 – far exceeding current apiary (bee-keeping) capability.

An outbreak of Varroa mite would also increase costs for apiarists, with the economic impact of the 1980s outbreak in North America estimated at US$14.6 billion.

The report is a key piece of research from the Pollination Program, a research and development strategy aiming to secure pollination in Australia sustainably and profitably. The program is jointly funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL) and the Australian Government.

Gerald Martin, Chairman of the Pollination R&D Advisory Committee, says gathering current knowledge on pollination and gaining an overview of supply and demand is seen as critical by the scientific community.

“Around one in three mouthfuls of food that we eat comes directly or indirectly from pollination,” he said. “It is vital that we manage potential risks and determine our future priorities for investment and funding to both maintain – and improve – crop yields and harvest quality,” Mr Martin said.

“Australia is fortunate to have a massive population of wild honeybees that pollinate our crops, but if these were decimated by Varroa mite, producers would have limited options in sourcing managed beehives, which would also suffer heavy losses.”

“The report also points out that a heavy reliance on this incidental pollination means the yield and quality of produce is often not reaching its potential because plants are not being pollinated at optimal levels – compromising profits,” said Martin.

“Pollination Aware provides for the first time an analysis of pollination-responsive crops in this country and outlines how we can protect our valuable agricultural output by developing a larger apiary industry.”