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.
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.