South Australian apiarists are worried their bees are being overworked trying to keep up with demand from an expanding almond industry. Bees are vital to the life cycle of almond orchards and are brought in during winter to pollinate trees which leads to the colourful, white bloom which occurs around August.
Meningie-based apiarist Bill Brown typically sends 70-100 per cent of his hives into the Riverland each winter. But the demand from the growing industry in SA has him concerned both he, and the bees, will struggle to keep up. "If you put the bees under pressure for 12 months of the year it does cause the weakening of the hive," Mr Brown said.
"Since pollination demand has become so strong we've just had to be very careful that we don't extract our bees too late in the season to allow the bees to build up hive strength and enough pollen pre-winter. Up until I'd say two years ago, there was enough supply to meet the demand, but just with the new plantings it's becoming increasingly harder to supply the numbers."
While the cross pollination for almond orchards benefits both the crop and bees, the timing of it is less than optimum. Bees tend to work hard for nine months of the year along with the rest of the hive, but then during the colder months — when almond orchards bloom — they like to hibernate and conserve energy.
This means apiarists need to ensure they look after their bees in a way which makes sure they're fit to go when almond blossom comes around. Mr Brown said this often includes investing in technology which puts an extra expense on apiarists.
"As the almond industry expands we're going to become a lot feeder of bees," he said. "Like sheep feed lots and cattle feed lots, we're going to have to supplementary feed the bees to be able to keep them strong enough. Beekeepers themselves are going to have to look at different means of maintaining their hive strength pre-almond flowering."
Australian Bee Services managing director Danny Le Ferve said there could be issues with getting enough bees as almond plantations mature and demand for pollination continues to rise. "Many beekeepers would say we're at capacity now," he said.
The industry is worth $1.6 billion Australia-wide, and in SA it is worth more than $220 million and creates more than 1,100 direct and indirect jobs.