AUSTRALIA’S bee and pollination experts are joining forces against a range of challenge which confront pollination dependent industries.
Colony collapse disorder and varroa mite have taken a huge toll in New Zealand, Asia, Europe and North America, with hived populations in some areas declining by 50 per cent.
So far, Australia’s tight biosecurity as shielded our shores from varroa mite, but experts warn it is a case of if, not when, it takes its toll.
Federal government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) program has funded the Securing Pollination for More Productive Agriculture project to tackle varroa and other pressing issues for pollinated crops.
Bee and pollination researchers will pool their knowledge to assess the contribution of pollinators to apples pears, lucerne, almonds, canola, melons, blueberries, raspberries, mangoes.
Introduced European honey bees are hugely important to many crops. Hived and feral populations pollinate between 50pc to 70pc of fruiting trees, and the majority of other crops, as well.
When New Zealand suffered its invasion in 2008 the feral honey bee population fell 90pc. According to CSIRO researchers, when Varroa mite hit the U.S in the late 1980s, hived honey bee populations declined 30pc and growers demand for pollination overran supply, triggering a four-fold price rise.
The good news is the mite impacts only the introduced honey bees. Australia’s 1,500 species of native bees, some which can better pollinators, are immune.
The RIRDC project is researching how growers can prepare to counter the expected decline honey bees.
RIRDC’s project manager Paul Blackshaw said the initiative builds on the informal collaboration many scientists had engaged in to date.
“This has been an important area for some years, but to now coordinate these pre-eminent researchers in pollination is vital,” Mr Blackshaw said.
He said research would focus on securing productive agricultural environments, improving vegetation – with an overarching focus on yields and rates of pollination.
A particular focus is utilising native vegetation near crops, to provide food and habitat to encourage native bees to live near crops year-round, so there is a ready supply of pollinators when crops are on the go.
Bee expert Dr Katja Hogendoorn, from the University’s School of Agriculture, said native species are “often more effective pollinators partly because they carry pollen on their body dry, while honey bees carry it wet and in a clump”.
“Pollination is an accident. Bees are out to gather for food for their offspring and it falls off them on other flowers when they’re collecting,” she said.
“Native bees are better pollinators, but they are there in lower numbers.”
Dr Hogendoorn’s research showed that in lucerne, a native Nomia bee species pollinated 33 times more lucerne flowers per unit of time than a honey bee.
Other research in the RIRDC project includes experiments to assess pollination deficits in apple orchards and pollinator habitats in the Adelaide Hills, as well as pollination field work with the blueberry and raspberry sectors in NSW.
Research institutions include Australian National University, University of Adelaide, University of New England and University of Sydney.
The agricultural sector will be represented by project partners including Lucerne Australia, Apple and Pear Growers Australia SA, Almond Board of Australia, Australian Melon Association, Australian Mango Industry Association, and Raspberries and Blackberries Australia.
Industry partners in the project include Horticulture Innovation Australia, Primary Industries and Resources SA, Department of Environment Water and Natural Resources SA, Trees for Life, Greening Australia, Costa, Native Vegetation Council, Natural Resources Northern and Yorke, SA Australian Apiarist Association, O’Connor NRM, Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges NRM Board and TERN Eco-informatics.