Busy bees are key to survival

Busy bees are key to our food supply

Farming Small Areas How To
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Bees are widely recognised as the source of honey. However, it is their work pollinating crops and fruits that makes them invaluable to our food supply.

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SWEET: Honey is universally enjoyed, but the real value of the bee is in the pollination of food crops, grain and fruit. Photo by Rachel Webb.

SWEET: Honey is universally enjoyed, but the real value of the bee is in the pollination of food crops, grain and fruit. Photo by Rachel Webb.

It has been estimated that there are between 20,000 to 30,000 species of bees.

The majority are solitary bees, living alone and surviving as an individual.

Some are semi-social, nesting in groups but, like flat mates, not mutually dependent.

Smaller numbers are social bees, living in a colony or swarm which is like a super-organism with each bee just one of thousands.

Here the welfare of the colony is paramount and the life of the individual, worker, drone or queen, is devoted to its survival.

There are 1,500 - 1,600 native Australian bees, and of these only a dozen or so are social bees.

The most common and well known bee of all is the honey bee, Apis Mellifera.

It has been cultivated and exploited by mankind to such an extent that the very survival of our food supply is dependent upon it.

It supplied a sweetener for our food long before the refinement of sugar.

Honey is universally enjoyed, but the real value of the bee is in the pollination of our food crops, grain and fruit.

Sure, our native bees, other insects, birds, wind and gravity contribute and pollinated Australia before the arrival of the honey bee from Europe in 1822.

But, the massive food crops in today's world demand massive numbers of bees for successful pollination.

Now there is worldwide recognition that the honey bee is under stress, if not under threat.

Though this is particularly so in the northern hemisphere, it is also relevant to us in Australia.

Danger comes from pests and diseases, the use of potent pesticides in farming practice and from destruction of habitat for bees is the wild.

There is also danger, to some extent, for migratory beekeepers.

We have always had diseases.

The most lethal bacterial infection of bee brood, ‘American foul brood’ featured in books on beekeeping from a century ago.

It is still such a major threat today that the Department of Primary Industries dedicated a recent month as ‘AFB Awareness Month’ for beekeepers.

Bees at risk now more than ever

There are now more threats for bees to contend with. 

The small hive beetle came to us from South Africa in 2002 and has spread throughout the east of Australia, destroying colonies and demanding the resources of beekeepers, researchers and industry to control it. 

The worst pest of all, the parasitic mite, Varroa Destructor has not yet reached Australia, but is a devastating problem in the northern hemisphere.  

Notwithstanding these mayor issues, at least one scientific researcher has a less gloomy view, pointing out that there are, after all, 20,000 to 30,000 other species of bees in the world. 

Though there is little data on the vast number of these, we may hope that they might play a vital role in securing our future.

In the meantime there are things the ordinary concerned citizen can do. 

Avoid indiscriminate use of insecticides, grow bee friendly flowering plants and even acquire bees.

We can also keep governing authorities aware of the need to maintain bee habitats.

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