Parasites and imports – a sticky situation for Australian honey producers

The last few years have been a tumultuous affair for Australian beekeepers. The threat of varroa mite, transhipping and older generations leaving the industry is making it more important than ever to support our local producers. 

Australia produces some of the world’s finest honey with a yield of up to 140kg per hive per year. This is due to a number of factors including a high volume of eucalyptus which is a fantastic nectar producer and the fact that we are so geographically distant from the rest of the world, preventing us from the introduction of harmful parasites and diseases.

But can Australian honey producers continue to rely on our geographical advantage to warn off parasites such as the industry destroying varroa mite?

“It’s going to happen eventually,” explains Lamorna Osborne, president of the Illawarra Beekeeping Association.

“The whole rest of the world has got it.

“We have already had two instances on ships that verroa mite was found on, one at Kurnell and the other at Darwin,” she said

Collapsing colonies the world over 

According to Osborne, Australia is the only country in the world that does not have the varroa mite problem.

A typical beehive consists of anything from two to four stackers with the baby bees on the bottom stack. The varroa mite, which is about the size of a match head, sucks on the blood of the baby bees which weakens the whole hive and its resistance to parasites.

There have been instances in America where entire bee colonies have suffered from what is widely being referred to as ‘colony collapse disorder’, where complete bee colonies have abruptly disappeared. 

Osborne mentioned that she had spoken to a number of South American bee keepers who were “happy if they can even get 7 kilos per hive”. 

Another challenge that the bee industry is facing is the Asian honey bee which has already come through Cairns according to Osborne. 

“It got in via a mast in a ship and is actually frequently swarming. It actually gets in and robs all the honey from the beehives so the bees starve to death. So that’s already here.”

An ageing industry is taking its toll

The hurdles for Australian beekeepers do not end there. Transhipping, low productivity and the older generation hanging up their coats is also proving to take its toll on this fragile industry.

“The older generation are leaving the industry and no younger people coming on,” explains Casey Cooper, Councillor of the NSW Apiarist Association.

There have been initiatives in place to encourage the younger generation to participate, however to make a viable future in the market is becoming more and more challenging.

“It is a niche market and as more things come along, more diseases more problems, it’s a harder and harder industry to break into and then make it successful,” he said. 

“If you’re established, it’s not quite as hard on you, but to come in today into the industry, and start and make a go of it, it would be a lot harder than it was 20-30 years ago.

“We have had a low productivity in the last 3 to 5 years. Imported honey coming in has not made our price rise because there is enough honey to supply the markets in the country. Imported honey is one big problem we’ve got to the bee keeping industry.”

Liane Colwell from the NSW Beekeeping Association also explained that transhipping is creating an inferior product.

“Chinese honey is exported to India, Malaysia and other countries and then imported into America and Australia. Their standards are quite different. They use antibiotics that we don’t use, there is often residues like chloramphenicol, and the other thing is that they often adulterate with sugar syrups, so it’s not honey,” she said.

“There is a big difference in feeding sugar and syrup to bees, and adding it to honey that is already finished.”

Colwell explained that honey sold in the supermarkets demand a cheap price and as a result, honey is imported and local producers lose out. 

“If you’re a small operator there is no possibility that you can sell in a supermarket,” she said.

Both Colwell and Cooper emphasised the importance of trade and consumer shows such as the Royal Easter Show and local farmers markets as key channels to connect to the public and pass on knowledge. 

It’s now more important than ever to buy local and support our Australian producers.

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