Top End beekeepers’ livelihoods go up in smoke as fires burn bee feed

Top End beekeepers’ livelihoods go up in smoke as fires burn bee feed

15 May 2015

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Australia — Controlled burns and bushfires in the Top End are making it difficult for beekeepers to find enough native flowers for their bees, leaving some in the already small Northern Territory beekeeping industry considering a move interstate.

Up to 40 per cent of the Top End and 20 per cent of the Katherine area is burnt every year.

This can destroy native flowers, which can take up to five years to appear again after burning, and removes a vital food source for honey bees.

Top End beekeepers say an increase in bushfires and mitigation burning is causing such a loss in honey production and even the death of whole hives, that their beekeeping businesses are becoming unviable.

Nathan Woods has been a beekeeper for over 20 years and is one of the Territory’s biggest.

“We normally run around 1,200 hives and because of all the burning we’re down to around 700 hives and decreasing,” he said.

“It makes it very hard to try and put bees back in those boxes if you haven’t got flowering trees to put your bees on and it has a massive impact on your income.”

Based 30 kilometres south of Katherine, Mr Woods said the amount of country that was burnt across the Top End made finding a good supply of flowers very difficult.

“The stringybark that we get around [Katherine], we really rely on in the dry season and if it gets burnt like it did last year and probably get burnt again this year, it’s about five years before it will flower again,” he said.

“So we struggle for that five years to find food for our bees.

“We’re definitely travelling further and further, there’s a lot of driving involved to find something to put your bees on.

“It can be very disheartening when you do find something to put your bees on and spend a week or so putting your bees onto it, only to go back a week later and have it all burnt and then you’ve got to try and find something else to put your bees on.

“It’s a big cost to move those bees and it is money that you don’t recover.”

Mataranka beekeeper Ron Hill said he had considered taking his bees as far south as Alice Springs to find flowering plants for them.

“To be viable you’re going to have to move your bees further, and you have to have a good reason [in central Australia] to warrant taking them down there,” Mr Hill said.

“They had some rain around Alice Springs, but that’s a long way to take bees.”

Both Mr Hill and Mr Woods said their honey production was significantly less than it used to be because of the lack of native flowers.

“We used to do about 80 tonne a year and we are down to about seven or eight tonne a year,” Mr Woods said.

“We still have to pay wages, fuel and everything out of that small amount of honey.”

The affect of burning on Mr Woods’ beekeeping business has become so severe, he feels he is only a couple of years away from leaving the Northern Territory.

“The only way out of it is to pack up and go south where beekeeping is a lot easier and they don’t light fires like they do [here],” he said.

“What the agricultural industry is going to do about bees, I have no idea.

“Without bees there are no cucurbit crops, no pumpkins, melons, cucumbers or anything like that which requires bees for pollination.

“They talk about the melon virus affecting the agricultural industry up here, a far greater problem than that is if there are no bees up here, there is no agriculture up here.”

Bushfires NT says Top End burning is at appropriate levels

Bushfires NT director Mark Ashley said bushfires and mitigation burning had increased across the Top End because of rising population and diversified land use.

“As the Katherine area has developed, areas in the Venn, areas to the north of town, those assets and horticultural areas need some form of protection,” Mr Ashley said.

“I acknowledge that beekeepers need access to flowering natives, but if mitigation burning is done properly it shouldn’t have a huge impact on the native vegetation to produce flowers.

To suggest that our volunteers and Bushfires NT are putting the bee industry at threat is just not a fair representation.

Mark Ashley, Director of Bushfires NT

“I’d argue that there is not too much mitigation burning, we need to do those early burns, they are only primarily along roadsides and vacant blocks to stop late wildfires.”

Mr Ashley said it was Bushfires NT policy to consult with landholders before any controlled burning was conducted.

“Bushfires NT do not light a mitigation burn without the permission of the land owner, without a permit and [only when] it is part of a program,” he said.

“To say that we [burn] willy-nilly, independent of community expectations, just isn’t a fair representation.”

Mr Ashley said communication needed to occur between landholders, beekeepers and Bushfires NT if concerns about burning were raised.

“The landowners ultimately make the decision on burning, not Bushfires NT,” he said.

“Fire management is the responsibility of the landowners, we only act on advice and direction of landowners.

“So the dialogue needs to be three ways.

“To suggest that our volunteers and Bushfires NT are putting the bee industry at threat is just not a fair representation, indeed if we didn’t do the mitigation burning then there would be significant risk to [the beekeeping] industry.”

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