Second generation beekeeper Casey Cooper, Tingha, is setting the pace when it comes to first world industry standards, yet he reckons his traceability system is so simple a “10 year old could run it with help from a kindergartner”.
Mr Cooper, a finalist in the NSW Farmer of the Year competition, runs 1000 hives on the New England Tablelands, extending west to the Pilliga in spring where protein rich acacias build up bee health ahead of summer. From there, they are trucked to eucaluypt honey-flow on the eastern fall.
This nature’s product is in a good place at the moment, with prices strong and growing awareness among consumers that bees are really good for health.
On the flip-side, disease like American foulbrood and declining vigour from pesticides, even herbicides, along with competition, threaten the viability of the European bee as both a producer of honey and a breeder of plants.
As an example, Mr Cooper uses his bees to commercially pollinate apples at Stanthorpe, Queensland, a job that fulfills a purpose for the orchardist, but drains the bees of energy.
“There’s very low protein in the flower of an apple,” he says. “But if we’re in there for only about a fortnight and if we’re careful, we can come out with the bees in reasonable shape.”
To guarantee that vital service well into the future Mr Cooper realised the need for biosecurity to safeguard already strong bee colonies and an accountancy system to track the quality of product.
Colour coding also works well in domestic management. Disease is kept low by never sharing items from one hive to another, so by colour coding with numbers there is no swapping supers and outbreaks can be managed.
Hives are loaded onto trucks by the pallet load and each hive, with an individual number, is grouped by colour. Bee sites are also numbered and information written down so if a sample comes back with an issue it can be traced to its origin.
“It all takes time, but the way the world is going this is necessary,” Mr Cooper said. “Tests have recently found traces of the herbicide glyphosate in a US sample of honey.
“China is now one of the toughest markets – as hard as Europe – when it comes to chemical tolerances in food.”
“I’m passionate about this industry. I’ve been in it 30 years and I learn every day. Bees show amazing social structures.”
To steer his bees in the right direction Mr Cooper learned to breed artificially, much like working with cattle or chickens except the tools are microscopic.
The best drones with good temperament from suitable hives are milked before virgin queens are inseminated.
“In a year you can breed up five or six generations if you want to,” said Mr Cooper. “You can change a trait very quickly – in three to four months - provided there is high nutrition and good rainfall. In a drought we suffer like anyone else.”
Mr Cooper said genetic selection through the generations was similar to all of agriculture with breeders selecting for productivity, temperament, survivability and toughness.