Australians back bumblebee pollination of Tasmanian tomato crops

The Australian federal government has agreed with a Senate committee recommendation to use Tasmania's feral bumblebee populations for a two-year trial for pollination purposes.

The inquiry, which was instigated by Tasmanian Labor Senator Anne Urquhart in 2016, sought to find out the risks and opportunities from using the state's bumblebee population for commercial horticultural purposes. It noted there was interest within the state's industry to use bumblebees to pollinate certain crops, like greenhouse tomatoes.

The inquiry found bumblebees had become established, either illegally or accidentally, in Tasmania in the mid-1990s though there was no evidence they were an established population in other states.

Former Tasmanian Primary Industries Minister, Jeremy Rockliff, told the inquiry the government believed they could offer an advantage for pollination purposes as there was no feasible opportunity for eradication: "They are used in many other countries for pollination and the Tasmanian Government supports a cautiously and carefully run trial with a Tasmanian commercial tomato farmer.”

Fruit Growers Tasmania said bumblebees were less affected by adverse and cooler weather conditions, like those experienced in Tasmania, than honey bees and, therefore, were more effective for pollination.

The University of Tasmania and Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture said international research on the use of bumblebees, rather than honey bees, for pollination had increased the yield for glasshouse crops that grew tomatoes, capsicum, eggplant, cucumber, raspberries and strawberries.

The Costa Group told the inquiry a single bee had the ability to pollinate 450 flowers per hour in a glasshouse tomato crop and their use would give Tasmania an economic advantage over other states.

The trial would require amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act which the government has agreed to. It is intended to undertake two stages. The first stage would test if bumble bees caught in the wild could pollinate tomatoes effectively.

If this was successful, a second stage would look at a breeding program. The trial's subsequent review would identify any adverse environmental impacts.


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