Cover story:

The world may be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a bee cri­sis, but Aus­tralia proves it re­ally is the lucky coun­try when it comes to the oth­er­wise global threat, writes SHAN­NON HAR­LEY.

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - NEWS -

This week Shan­non Har­ley ex­plains why Aus­tralia is the lucky coun­try when it comes to es­cap­ing the honey trap

If the bee dis­ap­peared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live, said Al­bert Ein­stein – al­legedly.You see,this quote is reg­u­larly at­trib­uted to him, but there’s no hard ev­i­dence he ac­tu­ally said it. Dis­be­liev­ers ar­gue Ein­stein was more in­ter­ested in the the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity than en­to­mol­ogy, while be­liev­ers hold to the idea it’s just the sort of pre­scient pos­tu­la­tion he would have made. Re­gard­less, the real is­sue, in a cli­mate where bee pop­u­la­tions are dwin­dling, is its ve­rac­ity. Is it true that the loss of bees would herald the end of life as we know it?

It would cer­tainly mean the end of peanut but­ter and honey sand­wiches, cher­ries on Christ­mas Day, and al­mond and macadamia milk lat­tes, cot­ton un­der­wear and that steak on the bar­bie – the hon­ey­bee can make or break not only our food sup­ply, but the life­cy­cle of the crops we grow for fab­ric and cat­tle feed.The tiny bee has a huge role in the bio­di­ver­sity of the world’s ecosys­tem – no won­der she’s so busy.

Colonies in Europe and the US suf­fer die-off of around 30 per cent each year from colony col­lapse dis­or­der – a per­fect storm of pes­ti­cide use and habi­tat loss from mono­cul­ture, dis­ease and the var­roa mite.There’s rea­son to be happy, though, if you’re a bee Down Un­der.

“Bees in Aus­tralia, they’re the luck­i­est bees in the world,” says api­arist Vicky Brown, co-founder of The Ur­ban Bee­hive in Syd­ney. Aus­tralia is the last var­roafree safe haven and an easy place for bees to ex­ist. “We have large wild pop­u­la­tions of bees that pol­li­nate our ma­jor crops, un­like in Europe and North Amer­ica,where they rely on mi­gra­tory bee­keep­ers to bring their hives into al­mond or­chards, for ex­am­ple, be­cause there are no feral bees left to do the job.”

The hon­ey­bee pol­li­nates about a third of to­tal food crops world­wide. In the US, the chem­i­cals used on com­mer­cial al­mond and canola crops pose a se­ri­ous threat to bees, but here in Aus­tralia it’s pes­ti­cide use in sub­ur­ban ar­eas, says Brown, that poses the big­gest threat, af­ter drought. “Aus­tralia has some of the health­i­est hon­ey­bees in the world. We can keep it this way if we stop spray­ing at home and do not al­low our­selves to get to the US level of agri­cul­tural pes­ti­cide use,” she says.

The lo­ca­vore and maker move­ments in food, mean­while, have led to a re­nais­sance in small-scale bee­keep­ing. Hives are now an in­trin­sic part of many restau­rants, from Kylie Kwong and Colin Fass­nidge’s rooftop hives in in­ner Syd­ney to Shan­non Bennett’s Burn­ham Beeches prop­erty in Vic­to­ria, which pro­vides honey for his Mel­bourne fine-diner,Vue de Monde.

The life­cy­cle of the bee is so frag­ile it can only be con­ceived, born and reared within a tight win­dow that de­pends on sea­son, tem­per­a­ture and the po­si­tion of the sun. In fact, the day of the vir­gin queen bee’s nup­tial flight, when she will mate with male drone bees to be­come the egg-lay­ing queen, must be warm, sunny and wind­less. This flight must oc­cur within 20 days of her birth or she won’t be fer­tile and, once she has been fer­tilised, the hive must be kept be­tween 33 and 34 de­grees if she is to lay the eggs. Bees may be hard work­ers, but adapt­able they are not and the pre­ci­sion re­quired for their liveli­hood is be­ing threat­ened by cli­mate change, along with pes­ti­cide use, which af­fects their mem­ory and nav­i­gat­ing abil­ity, and then there’s im­ported honey in the mix.

Brown says the best thing you can do to sup­port Aussie bees and bee­keep­ers is buy lo­cal honey and keep for­eign honey, beeswax, bee pollen and royal jelly out of Aus­tralia. She rec­om­mends buy­ing from farm­ers’ mar­kets, IGA supermarkets, lo­cal bee clubs and ur­ban op­er­a­tions such as her own. It sounds sim­ple, but Brown says most com­mer­cial brands of honey are blended us­ing im­ported honey, mak­ing it hard for lo­cal pro­duc­ers to com­pete with cheaper prices. New la­belling laws re­quire all jars to state the place of ori­gin, so look for ‘Prod­uct of Aus­tralia’.

Per­haps what Ein­stein meant to say was that bees are the ca­naries of the en­vi­ron­ment. While we may be able to out­live them, we’ll be stuck eat­ing non-pol­li­nated plants such as pota­toes in a world without al­monds, cot­ton or cher­ries, or pay­ing in­flated prices for hand-pol­li­nated ap­ples, as in China where na­tive bees have dis­ap­peared. From the food we eat to the clothes on our back, bees are vi­tal to hu­mans be­cause they af­fect so many chains of ex­is­tence “It goes be­yond the honey when it comes to how cru­cial bees are,” says Brown. Find recipes such as Matt Mo­ran’s spiced pump­kin and honey bread at de­li­cious.com.au.

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