Beekeepers face lean future in fire’s aftermath

John Thistleton 7 May 2020 20
Kershaws retreat

The Kershaws retreat from one of their South Coast sites as fire approaches. Photos: Supplied.

Bee pollinating and honey-making will remain grounded long after the drought and bushfire crises subside says apiarist Laurie Kershaw.

Laurie scrambled to pull thousands of hives from the path of the Currowan blaze on the South Coast.

The Kerhsaws are based between Gundaroo and Bungendore. Annually, they contract their bees for almond pollination in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area near Darlington Point and Griffith in July. Then they move them on to flowering canola crops around West Wyalong and Temora.

Many beekeepers rely on the South Coast’s long stretches of giant, pollen and nectar-rich eucalyptus trees to produce honey. Due to the destruction of the forest giants from widespread fires, the beekeepers’ biggest challenge will be the months ahead without flowers and their bees surviving winter. Laurie reckons eucalyptus trees will take anywhere between two and 10 years to recover.

“In some areas, they probably won’t recover,” he said. “The fires were so intense, they blew the bark off spotted gum trees. It will be interesting to see how badly they were burned and how they will recover,” he said.

“We lost over 124 sites in forests and national parks on the South Coast where we put bees on,” Laurie said. “Those sites are all burnt out, so a lot of our resources are gone,” the fourth-generation beekeeper said.

“In one load, 16 hives were burnt, the remaining 116 were scorched. We shifted 2500 hives out of the fire area, some of them we have shifted three times since.”

Laurie works alongside his three sons and his brother Arthur. Using skid-steer loaders from daylight to the late evening, placing hives on pallets and then loading them on trucks, they drove to places they thought were clear of the fire’s treacherous path. But fires kept coming.

“We put the hives down, the fire kept increasing so we had to pick them up again, put them down again and then pick them up again,” he said.

Again, the next morning they moved about 48 kilometres further down near Ulladulla as fire brigades tried back-burning to counter the fierce fire. Two days later they were picking up hives again when the back-burning failed.

Had it not been for the widespread fires, the Kershaws would have worked their way out of the Currowan Forest down to Nerrigundah on the other side of Moruya at Bodalla. But the countryside’s precious stands of eucalyptus trees had gone up in flames. In some areas, roads had closed, bridges had burned down and other beekeepers’ hives sat stranded on burnt ground.

Overall the Kershaws had 3000 hives. They suffered heavy losses, including queen-rearing hives. They had taken the nucleus colonies west towards Jugiong where the bees were to feed on Red River Gums along the Murrumbidgee River. Endless days of dense smoke stopped the bees from flying to gather water. When young queens in nucleus hives hatch they have to fly to mate with drones.

“They won’t fly in smoke, the queens might fly out, but the drones won’t go out and fly, so therefore the hive sits there and goes queen-less,” Laurie says.

Without water, bees, like people, dehydrate quickly. Eventually the hive occupants die. On the days Canberrans sweltered in 40 to 43 degree heat, Laurie estimates the temperatures climbed higher than 45 degrees near Jugiong 120 km away, inflicting a deadly toll on the nucleus colonies.

Laurie Kershaw

Laurie Kershaw handling protein pollen which is used to feed bees in the absence of flowers.

In the aftermath of widespread bushfires, the beekeeping industry is suggesting government measures to encourage bee and pollinating habitats similar to the Bee and Butterfly program in the US.

In the meantime, Laurie hopes enough rain eventually arrives to extinguish the fires and a good spring season follows. Ground covers spreading across burnt ground could provide flowers as an alternative to trees lost in the bushfires. Biological control has almost wiped out what beekeepers regarded as the best of the ground covers, Paterson’s curse, which had been a good source of protein.

In lieu of that, the Kershaws have bought tonnes of protein pollen to feed their bees since early December.

The fire is the latest existential threat for the region’s beekeepers. It replaced drought as the primary challenge. Before the fires the Kershaws were carting water to the South Coast for their bees, an unprecedented task for the family.

“Bees drink a lot of water,” Laurie said. “A load of bees consisting of 132 hives will drink a 44-gallon drum [166 litres] of water a day, the equivalent to 1000 litres a week,” he said. He has seen rivers and creeks on the coast dry for the first time in his life. The drought is so widespread eucalyptus trees and ground covers not burned are dying everywhere due to lack of rain.

And with the fire threat in retreat, the focus returns to drought.

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20 Responses to Beekeepers face lean future in fire’s aftermath
Karen Feng Karen Feng 5:26 pm 23 Jan 20

I thought I'll share this. If you can try to leave some clean water out for creatures big and small.

Chanelle Fyve Chanelle Fyve 12:14 am 23 Jan 20

Can they lend them out to backyard - I know the Canberra bee society puts them into people yards so they can have different variety of plants and flowers.

Capital Retro Capital Retro 9:24 am 22 Jan 20

There are definitely more bees than flowers in my garden this season. I think the urban situation will improve but it’s pretty grim elsewhere.

Jim Jim Jim Jim 6:21 am 22 Jan 20

Really interesting read.

Bente Hart Bente Hart 9:21 pm 21 Jan 20

Have been putting out sugar water for my bees for the last 3 weeks and do not expect any honey harvest this year.

    Susan Nicholls Susan Nicholls 8:23 am 22 Jan 20

    Bente Hart How do you make sugar water?

    Bente Hart Bente Hart 3:28 pm 22 Jan 20

    Susan Nicholls 1kg sugar to 2L water heat gently until sugar is dissolved. Cool down. Poor into shallow tray with straw or the like for bees to stand on. Put out for them to find. I have found best in a place with shade.

Karen Feng Karen Feng 1:12 pm 21 Jan 20

i previously notice a bee was flying around plants that wasn't flowering. then i notice it was drinking water from a leaf. i now leave water with a stick so that bugs can get water. i also leave large bucket for larger animals.

i caught on videonif a magpie trying to steal a 4L ice cream container of water.

Kelly Clark Kelly Clark 12:57 pm 21 Jan 20

Hopefully they will allow them into whatever remaining NP we have🍯🐝🐝🐝

Chelle Belle Chelle Belle 12:14 pm 21 Jan 20

This is what I asked a few weeks ago re the impact !

Michael Blythe Michael Blythe 10:39 am 21 Jan 20

Without bees, we have no food. This is a serious crisis, one our government needs to take a lot more notice of....

Editha Badenhorst Editha Badenhorst 9:09 am 21 Jan 20

Frans Casper not the bees 😫

Sam Lawrence Sam Lawrence 8:44 am 21 Jan 20

Lucky we have 100 bees that we can hear from inside the house Tony Place Crystal Latham

    Crystal Latham Crystal Latham 10:14 am 21 Jan 20

    Sam Lawrence poor bees 😔 but yes plenty where you are which is great 🐝🐝🐝

Gordon Gullock Gordon Gullock 8:42 am 21 Jan 20

Carol Drury a long recovery road ahead for many.

John Thistleton John Thistleton 8:37 am 21 Jan 20

Since writing this story I have heard Kangaroo Island off South Australian has lost some of its colony of Ligurian honey bees, which originally came from Italy. The bees produce what is regarded as the world’s purest strain of Ligurian honey. An ABC report says about 1,000 of the island’s 4,000 hives were damaged during the island’s bushfires.

Jessica McDonald Jessica McDonald 8:20 am 21 Jan 20

Interesting. So many things you don't think of that have been affected by the fires

    Chelsea Webb Chelsea Webb 10:15 am 21 Jan 20

    Jessica McDonald really good friends of ours are beekeepers!! They’ve lost so much 😢😢

    Jessica McDonald Jessica McDonald 11:15 am 21 Jan 20

    Chelsea Webb how horrible :(

Steve Aust Steve Aust 7:27 am 21 Jan 20

Sad but fascinating story. The working day for these beekeepers sounds exhausting.

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