Tasmanian beekeepers count the cost of ‘disastrous’ dry summer of bushfires with leatherwood honey decimated and crop pollination at risk

Beekeepers position their hives near leatherwood areas in the state’s rainforests, many of which were impacted by bushfires across Tasmania since late-December.

Some apiarists are still waiting to check on their hives, and colonies near fire-affected areas have been starved. An estimated 600 hives have been lost.

The fires combined with a dry spring and summer which was already predicted to impact honey production.

Tasmanian Beekeepers Association president Lindsay Bourke said it had been a “devastating” season for beekeepers.

“We didn’t get honey in the first place because it was so dry, and flowers were screwed up and dry, leaves were wilting, there was no nectar, there was no flowering,” he said.

“Then we got the bushfires and all of that smoke. Bees can’t harvest because they can’t navigate.

“It’s been disastrous for us.”

Beekeepers place their hives in the areas for between 10 to 12 weeks in an attempt to secure honey for the upcoming season, with 70 per cent for Tasmania’s unique leatherwood honey.

Every available leatherwood site was being used by beekeepers in Tasmania.

Tasmania has about 300 beekeepers – 10 large commercial operations that produce 85 per cent of the honey. One producer lost 300 hives before the season started due to the dry conditions.

Mr Bourke said it would have flow-on effects for pollination.

“We do the best we can to provide bees for crop pollination … we can’t keep up with the crop pollination demands,” he said.

Crop pollination is required in Tasmania for apples, cherries, pears, raspberries, strawberries and other fruit, along with canola, cabbage, bok choi, cauliflower and the expanding carrot growing industry.

Bees are also required for chicory, fennel, lucerne hay and onions.

Dry season in the Tarkine hurts Honey Tasmania collecting

Rebecca and Tristan Campbell’s honey operation has grown from one hive in the Tarkine in 2004, to 350 in 2019, and they say the current season is the worst they have seen.

Mrs Campbell said they had managed to collect less than 25 per cent of their usual pure leatherwood from the Tarkine due to a lack of rainfall.

“It’s been a wake-up call for us all,” she said.

“We geared up for a really big year this year, but the flowers just dried up so quickly that the bees had to find something else.

“The soils out in the west are pretty shallow, it’s most rock. Those forests need continuous rain to feed the trees.”

Leatherwood honey prices are likely to increase quickly in the coming months and bulk pure leatherwood supplies are running out.

Instead, Honey Tasmania – based at The Beehive in Exeter – has produced a blend based on what their bees were able to collect, calling it “2019 drought leatherwood”.

Mrs Campbell said the loss of leatherwood in the state’s south would be difficult to recover in a drying climate prone to dry lightning strikes.

“There was quite a loss in leatherwood trees from the fires in the south, and that is going to impact the honey production in the future even more than this year’s weather conditions and the fires,” she said.

“Those trees will struggle to grow back … eucalypts will take their place.

“It takes between 30 and 150 years for a leatherwood tree to produce a good flow of nectar. So those new leatherwood trees that are able to compete with the other species in the regenerated areas will not be producing much honey in our lifetime.”

Government to work with beekeepers after ‘historically difficult season’

The Tasmanian Government is working with beekeepers and honey producers to assess “wider seasonal issues”.

The government has also made available Bushfire Small Business Disruption grants of up to $2000, longer-term Bushfire Recovery grants of up to $25,000 for small to medium businesses, and will soon introduce a concessional bushfire recovery loan scheme for up to $100,000.

Minister for Primary Industries Guy Barnett said the government is “open to revision of priority issues in light of the immediate needs resulting from the bushfires and seasonal conditions”.

“The government is working with the bee industry to address both strategic needs and immediate issues resulting from an historically difficult season,” he said.

“This includes both the direct impact of the recent bushfires and wider seasonal impacts on production.

“We are continuing to work with the industry to assess the wider seasonal issues impacting production and the Department of State Growth is working with affected producers to determine the need for further assistance on an individual basis.”

Strategic priorities are being determined in consultation with the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association, the Tasmanian Crop Pollination Association, the TFGA, Fruit Growers Tasmania and pollination-dependent industries.

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