Updated: Nov 1, 2021
Last month, I was invited by some local beekeepers to visit Australia and learn about the beekeeping and almond industries down under. I spent the week meeting with beekeepers, growers, other businesses in the AgTech space and government officials. We attended conferences and field days and enjoyed some meals with their fantastic coffee and wine. It was a week of learning for me, and I want to share some interesting findings about the industry that I was able to pick up through the Aussie slang.
Though Australian beekeepers don’t have to deal with the Varroa mite, the key challenge that dictated how hives are managed commercially is forage availability. There’s a lot more natural forage available in Australia, and compared to the US, hives tend to produce more honey each year. Depending on the region, Australian hives can produce 165lbs per hive each year, whereas American beekeepers are usually grateful to crack to 100lb mark.
For Australian beekeepers, scouting sites prime for nectar and pollen production is a necessary skill. One beekeeper told me, to be beekeeper in Australia, one must also be a naturalist, meteorologist, biologist, and a botanist. Many of the tree species don’t bloom every year, with some only blooming once every few years. Beekeepers must pay attention to the buds and when the tree species last bloomed, in order to determine whether to drop hives on a given site.
To complicate matters, much of the nectar produces far thicker honey, and some honeys like canola need to be extracted immediately before they crystallize. Since pulling honey happens more frequently, several beekeepers have these fancy mechanical hive loaders to help with hauling those heavy honey supers.
Because of better forage availability, not all beekeepers feed their bees. Some are starting to experiment with it, but the focus seemed to be more on pollen supplements than sugar-based feed. I didn’t find a single beekeeper who feeds with sugar syrup. One interesting impact of this is how many hives in single deep boxes are sent to almonds, which raises a concern for robbing before almond bloom. To prevent this, many beekeepers don’t bring their hives into almonds until 10% bloom, much later than in California.
COMPETITION TO ALMOND POLLINATION
Unlike in the US, almonds aren’t the only crop blooming at the beginning of the season, so Australian almond growers must compete with other crop growers to meet their pollination needs. Canola is planted in a similar region as almonds and can bloom before or during almond bloom. In addition, beekeepers in the northeastern part of the country can have access to plenty of natural forage during almond bloom, allowing beekeepers to begin honey production as an alternative to collecting pollination fees. This will likely lead almond growers to raise prices for pollination in to meet their quotas and provide an incentive for beekeepers to skip out on early season honey revenue.
As is the case in the states, increased prices for almond pollination may encourage beekeepers to focus on splitting and growing hive numbers instead of building hives up for honey harvest. Australian growers currently rent more hives per acre than in the US, so you might also see the stocking rate decrease as prices rise. Instead of spreading out hives in drops of 6-8 pallets across the orchard, many Australian growers are fine with a few large drops. I know US beekeepers would enjoy that!
On a fun note, I found the sports in Australia very interesting. One of the beekeeping conferences (CVAA) was at a horse racing track, but the jockeys ride in chariots! They have their own national football league, but after watching a couple games and highlights, it looked more like rugby than the NFL. They also have some amazing wildlife to keep them entertained in the fields while they work.
I want to give a HUGE thank you to the beekeepers who coordinated my visit to Australia. It was an insightful and valuable trip for me and The Bee Corp, and I can’t wait to return.