After the Fires: Bees in Australia
Although the recent cooler weather and rains have brought some respite, the balance of the Australian bushfires is devastating. At least 33 people have died, including 4 fire fighters, and more than 11 million hectares of bush, forest and parks across the country has been burned. Currently there are still more than 50 fires in the states of New South Wales and Victoria and hot and windy conditions are set to return as the Aussies brace for what is typically their hottest month of the year.
The states that have been hit the hardest also contain much of the countries national parks. Experts have estimated the amount of wildlife that was killed during this mega-bushfire season to be around 1.25 billion and we have all seen heartbreaking images of some of Australia's most iconic animals like koala's and kangaroo's that fell victim to the fire.
For industries that rely heavily on wildlife 2020 will be a tough year and the bee industry especially has been left reeling. Already affected by the months of drought, at least 20.000 commercial honeybee hives have been destroyed by fires according to the federal government, a number still expected to increase. Because of the massive loss of flora, the bees that did manage to survive are mostly left with nothing to feed on, so beekeepers are desperate as to where to put them.
New South wales is the largest honey-producing state in the country and its beekeepers are now pressing for access to unburnt national parks and reserves. NSW currently places restrictions on new bee sites in national parks but beekeepers are being supported by agriculture minister Adam Marshall and the Honeybee Industry Council as well as the $1 billion almond industry which is entirely dependent on industrial bee pollination.
In Queensland, the severity of the fires coupled with the prolonged drought has impacted the state's vegetation and the industry's health at a critical level. Up to 95 % of the state crown land resources that serve as food for bees is effectively unproductive at the moment. The scary reality is that there are about 45,000 hives that are needed in July to start the pollination season just for avocado and macadamias alone in Queensland. Without really strong hives going into the autumn months, this year's fruit yield for avocados, macadamias and even strawberries, watermelons and blueberries could see some significant downturn, purely because the bees haven't been strong enough to go into pollination.
The fires also took a big toll on South Australia's Kangaroo Island, home to what is believed to be the world’s last genetically pure population of the Ligurian Honey Bee. Originally from Italy, these bees flourished on the island because they mostly fed on native flora and were free of most diseases. Over New Year, bushfires burnt a third of Kangaroo Island, killing two people and destroying an estimated quarter of the island’s 4,000 Ligurian hives as well as the eucalyptus that feeds them. It might take the local industry up to 15 years to fully recover.
The Australian government is showing support in the form of grants as well as supplying tonnes of beesugar to hives in damaged areas across the country to prevent colony starvation, but while these measures are very welcomed and much needed, they are not focused on prevention. Access to national parks historically has always been difficult, but improvements could be made in local vegetation and fire management. Where indigenous people used prescribed fires, farmers today are not allowed to burn appropriately to protect their properties as it is considered 'clearance'. But some states are beginning to see the wisdom of a proper fire management because allowing bushes and shrubs to build up unchallenged for 30 years turned out to be the fuel for the biggest 'clearance' in recent history.