Scientist, former ecology researcher, and Goulburn beekeeper Jane Suttle has a warning for climate change sceptics – our bee population is decreasing in line with the impacts of a shifting environment.
Why should fewer bees matter? Without honey bee pollination, fertilization and natural seed production end.
“It’s been said that when the last bee dies, the human race would only last another four years. I doubt that because we are innovators, but our food plants would be severely impacted and we would be growing only what could be artificially produced,” Jane said.
In the Goulburn region, the seasonal variation has meant a drop in the bee population. Bee behaviour is affected by the weather; bees only work in warmer weather when the temperature is above 10 degrees Celsius.
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“They need to eat when they come out of hibernation. Bee numbers build up, there’s a drop in the temperature and bee numbers drop off. I think we’re going to see more difficulty for our bee populations in places like Goulburn,” Jane said.
Hot days, followed by cold weather and a lack of rainfall are an indication of biological systems under pressure.
“Our biological systems are flexible and they will stretch but there is a tipping point. If you go back in time, there were not as many peaks and troughs in our weather. It was more predictable,” Jane said.
While honey bee product in Australia is valued at around $125 million, pollination is also critical to the country’s agriculture, adding an additional farm gate value of $6.5 billion.
“What is often overlooked is that 44 of our food crops wholly or in part rely on honey bee pollination…healthy bees are an essential ingredient for success,” Dr. Liz Barbour from UWA’s Office of Research Enterprise said.
There are around 500,000 bee hives in Australia. For Jane Suttle who is the president of the Goulburn District Beekeepers Club, beekeeping is a welcome hobby which she took up after she moved to the district from Sydney 12 years ago.
Observing the bee colony and collecting swarms for rehoming in hives, keeps her in touch with her scientific roots.
“Bees are fascinating and you can never know enough about them. Often a younger queen bee will look after an ageing queen. You have the bees that forage for nectar or pollinate, and the housework bees to maintain the hive. Older bees don’t fly but stay and guard the hive and when they run out of space a queen bee will often go off with half the colony to find a new home,” she said.
“They will ventilate their hive on hot days, flapping their wings to deliver ‘air conditioning’. There is so much going on in a hive; they are very efficient. My role is to support them to do what they do best.
“And I like to ask questions, so bees have suited me,” she said.
Australia has more than 1,500 species of native bees, however, most crops in Australia are pollinated by the commercial honey bee, introduced by Australia’s early European settlers.
The UWA recently established a Cooperative Research Centre for Honey Bee Products which among other priorities is developing a research network with the US, China, and Europe so that international research identifying bee disease genetic markers can be integrated into the Australian honey bee population.
Despite the threat of climate change and disease, Jane maintains we are lucky in Australia when it comes to our bee populations but there’s no room for complacency.
“There have been drops in the UK and US bee numbers,” she said.
“For me, recognizing that climate change is impacting on our bees is a bit like doing primary school maths. Eventually, the world will need to do something about it and the same people who have done the damage will need to do the healing.”