The Guardian Australia
Bees bounce back after Australia’s black summer: ‘Any life is good life’
You could say that Adrian Iodice is something of a stickybeak neighbour. On Iodice’s once-lush bushland property, nestled within the Bega Valley of New South Wales, there stands a majestic rough-barked apple tree that the beekeeper used to, every now and then, jam his head into.
In the hollow of the trunk lived a flourishing wild colony of European honeybees that Iodice had been keeping an eye on for years. “I’d have a chat with them,” he laughs. “Stick my head in and see how they’re getting on in life. They were very gentle bees; they never had a go at me.”
In the wake of the black summer bushfires of 2019-20 that torched his land and home, Iodice’s thoughts turned to the abode of his insect neighbours. “So I went over and stuck my head in the hollow as usual, but they weren’t there,” he says. “A lot of the wax had melted out, with just the residue left. I got quite emotional.”
Iodice had been keeping watch on about a dozen wild hives dotted around his property. All were lost to the flames. “Even the trees that survived, the colonies burnt out anyway because of the way hollows act as chimneys in a fire,” he says. “All animals in those hollows would have suffered the same fate. To look at the trees still standing, and knowing where those beehives had been … to see no activity whatsoever was quite shocking.”
It was a similar story right across the firegrounds of Australia’s black summer. The honey industry reported at least 2.5bn honeybees in NSW and Victoria alone were killed in the fires. As Iodice notes, the loss of pollinators such as bees and wasps has profound implications for any ecosystem, let alone one recovering from an unprecedented fire event. “Plants can’t get up and run across the paddock to make love to each other; they need bees to transport the pollen,” he says. “You’re not going to have that regeneration without them – without pollinators there’s no ecosystem at all.”
Iodice wanted to do something about it – and he wasn’t alone. Local organisations such as Bee Day Australia offered to support his plans for restoration projects. Help also arrived from overseas, with the UK’s Natural Beekeeping Trust flying over BoomtreeBees expert Michael Verspuij to help train Iodice in how to build log hives. Armed with that newfound knowledge, Iodice picked over the charred remains of bushland to find logs with the insides burnt just right to be carved into the large cavities that honeybees prefer. “By doing that, we’d stop the honeybees from taking over smaller hollows more suitable for sugar gliders and birds,” he says. Iodice and his team hoisted these log hives up into the trees, where they were protected from subsequent disaster events, such as the recent floods that swept through NSW and drowned out ground-level commercial beehives.
Iodice built “bee hotels” for native bees and wasps, and collaborated with Indigenous organisation Back to Country to conduct a healing ceremony in the Bega Valley, where locals planted native plant species to facilitate the return of pollinators.
It’s one example of the efforts to restore Australia’s bee population in the wake of such a cataclysmic event.
Generous rainfall through spring and summer catalysed a remarkable bounceback in insect populations, benefiting not just the environment, but the honey industry and farms that depend on pollinators.
With around 10,000 commercial beehives lost in the bushfires across the state, the NSW Apiarists’ Association scrambled to share the surviving hives among regions in need of pollinators, such as orange orchards in the Riverina.
The recovery has been so strong that in southern NSW, honey production has increased by between 60 and 100% compared with 2019.
The Victorian Apiarists’ Association president, Phillip McPherson, said the steady rain also benefited his state’s bee population, and believes Victoria will have its best autumn production in years. He estimates the state’s honey industry lost at least a thousand hives in the fires, but notes the impact wasn’t as severe as north of the border.
The VAA has worked to support their NSW counterparts, connecting apiarists in need with suitable sites. “A number of beekeepers came across the border and wintered in central Victoria last year, staying until the almonds were pollinated,” McPherson says.
Basha Stasak, the nature program manager at the Australian Conservation Foundation, says although bee numbers bounced back following the destruction of vast tracts of flowering trees in the bushfires, “our buzzing friends continue to face serious challenges. There are concerns some insecticides used by agricultural industries are killing bees, and the ongoing problem of land clearing in Australia is bad news for bees.”
Stasak warned that Australia’s national environmental protections were failing to protect their habitat. “Since Australia’s national environment law took effect 20 years ago, an area of threatened species habitat the size of Tasmania has been logged, cleared and bulldozed,” she says.
On Kangaroo Island in South Australia, apiarists are likewise working to rebound from the black summer devastation to the local bee population.
Adelaide beekeepers travel to the island every few months to help rebuild the hives of Ligurian honeybees.
Non-honey-producing native bees have also received assistance, including the rare green carpenter bee that lost most of its Kangaroo Island habitat in the fires. The Wheen Bee Foundation has drawn on its “strategic bee rebuild and recovery fund” to finance new nesting stalks for the native bee, built by volunteers at the Kingscote men’s shed.
Entomologist Dr Katja Hogendoorn from the University of Adelaide, who is conducting surveys of the green carpenter bee population, is matterof-fact about the scale of the challenge. “Ninety-nine percent of the habitat burnt,” she says. “The remnant population is now so low that we are not certain it is viable.”
According to Hogendoorn, it is too early to tell if the nesting stalks will be enough. “We will know from the uptake in two years,” she says. Hogendoorn notes that while “the jury is out” on whether introduced honeybees are a competitive threat to their native counterparts, she is nevertheless encouraging the island’s honey industry to leave some space for the green carpenter bee to try and reestablish itself.
Back in NSW, Iodice says he has copped vitriol online from people critical of his efforts to encourage wild colonies of European honeybees. “What people don’t understand is when ecosystems are facing the level of devastation they did in the fires, any life is good life,” he says.
Iodice is not done yet. Using some of his insurance payout from the bushfires, he’s bought a caravan to tour Australia with his family, staging workshops on natural beekeeping and log hives.
“One thing I highlight is that natural
beekeeping relies on a relationship between bees and the beekeeper,” he says.
“If you treat them nicely, they tend to be very tolerant of us, so I teach students how to be gentle. There are signs they’re giving us about when we can work with them.”
Reflecting on the initial restoration after the fires, he recalls how getting the community together to plant “pollination patches” didn’t just aid the bushland. “Those locals who had lost everything, they were not just helping the environment – they were making a new start for themselves.”