Buzz off honey industry, our national parks shouldn’t be milked for money


Patrick O’Connor, University of Adelaide; James B. Dorey, Flinders University, and Richard V Glatz, University of Adelaide

Among the vast number of native species damaged by the recent bushfire crisis, we must not forget native pollinators. These animals, mainly insects such as native bees, help sustain ecosystems by pollinating native plants.

Native pollinator populations have been decimated in burned areas. They will only recover if they can recolonise from unburned areas as vegetation regenerates.

Since the fires, Australia’s beekeeping industry has been pushing for access to national parks and other unburned public land. This would give introduced pollinators such as the European honeybee, (Apis mellifera) access to floral resources.

But our native pollinators badly need these resources – and the recovery of our landscapes depends on them. While we acknowledge the losses sustained by the honey industry, authorities should not jeopardise our native species to protect commercial interests.

The commercial honeybee industry wants access to national parks.
Flickr

The bush: a hive of activity

The European honeybee is the main commercial bee species in Australia. It exists in two contexts: in hives managed for honey production, and as a pest exploiting almost every wild habitat. Honeybees in managed hives are classified as livestock, the same way pigs and goats are.

Feral and (to a lesser extent) managed honeybees contribute a broad variety of crop pollination services, including for almond, apple and lucerne (also called alfalfa) crops.




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Pollinators visit the flowers of the crop plants and ensure they are fertilised to produce fruit and seed. Beekeepers are often paid to put their bees in orchards since trees (such as almond trees) cannot produce a crop without insect pollination.

But native species of bees, beetles, flies and birds are just as important for crops. They are also essential for pollination, seed production and the regulation of Australia’s unique ecosystems – which evolved without honeybees.

Nature at risk

The honeybee industry sustained considerable losses in the recent fires, particularly in New South Wales and on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Commercial hives were destroyed and floral resources were burned, reducing the availability of sites for commercial hives. This has prompted calls from beekeepers to place hives in national parks.

Currently, beekeepers’ access to conservation areas is limited. This is because bees from commercial hives, and feral bees from previous escapes, damage native ecosystems. They compete with native species for nectar and pollen, and pollinate certain plant species over others.

In NSW, honeybees are listed as a key threatening process to biodiversity.

Untold damage

Allowing commercial hives in our national parks compromises these valuable places for conservation and could do untold damage.

Australia’s native birds, mammals and other insects rely on the same nectar from flowers as honeybees, which are abundant and voracious competitors for this sugary food.

Also, honeybees pollinate invasive weeds, such as gorse, lantana and scotch broom. These are adapted to recover and spread after fire, and are very expensive to control.

Many native plant species are not pollinated, or are pollinated inefficiently, by honeybees. This means a concentration of honeybee hives in a conservation area could shift the entire makeup of native vegetation, damaging the ecosystem.

Bringing managed hives into national parks would also risk transferring damaging diseases such as Nosema ceranae to native bee species.

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) is considered an invasive weed.
James Gaither/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Chokehold on our flora and fauna

Currently, the commercially important honeybee is kept mainly on agricultural land. In national parks and reserves, native species are prioritised.

The amount of land set aside for conservation is already insufficient to preserve the species and systems we value.




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Australia’s national parks also suffer from mismanagement of grazing by native and introduced animals, and other activities permitted in parks, such as road development and in some cases, mining.

National parks must be allowed to recover from bushfire damage. Where they are unburned, they must be protected so native plants and animals can recover and recolonise burned areas.

National parks decimated by the bushfires should be allowed to recover.
AAP/Daniel Mariuz

Protecting nature and the beekeeping industry

The demand for commercial beekeeping in national parks is a result of native vegetation being cleared for agriculture in many parts of Australia.

In the short term, one solution is for beekeepers to artificially feed their hives with sugar syrup, as is common practise in winter. Thus, they could continue to produce honey and provide commercial pollination services.

While production levels may fall as a result of the reduced feed, and honey may become more expensive, at least consumers would know the product was made without damaging native wildlife and vegetation.

A long-term solution is to increase the area of native vegetation for both biodiversity and commercial beekeeping, by stepping up Australia’s meagre re-vegetation programs.




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Unfortunately, vegetation clearance rates in Australia remain extremely high.

Protecting and enhancing native vegetation would have both commercial and public benefits. Programs like the recently announced Agricultural Stewardship Package could be designed, to pay farmers for vegetation protection and revegetation.

Increasing vegetation in our landscapes is an insurance policy that will not only protect biodiversity, but support the honey industry.The Conversation

Patrick O’Connor, Associate Professor, University of Adelaide; James B. Dorey, PhD Candidate, Flinders University, and Richard V Glatz, Associate research scientist, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wasps, aphids and ants: the other honey makers



File 20180907 190639 1nvjzhk.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Myrmecocystus honeypot ants, showing the repletes, their abdomens swollen to store honey, above ordinary workers.
Greg Hume via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Manu Saunders, University of New England

There are seven species of Apis honey bee in the world, all of them native to Asia, Europe and Africa. Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, is the species recognised globally as “the honey bee”. But it’s not the only insect that makes honey.

Many other bee, ant and wasp species make and store honey. Many of these insects have been used as a natural sugar source for centuries by indigenous cultures around the world.




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By definition, honey is a sweet, sticky substance that insects make by collecting and processing flower nectar. The commercial association between honey and honey bees has mostly developed alongside the long-term relationship between humans and domesticated honey bees.

This association is also supported by the Codex Alimentarius, the international food standards established by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. The Honey Codex mentions only “honey bees” and states that honey sold as such should not have any food additives or other ingredients added.

Oh honey, honey

Biologically, there are other insect sources of honey. Stingless bees (Meliponini) are a group of about 500 bee species that are excellent honey producers and are also managed as efficient crop pollinators in some regions. Stingless bees are mostly found in tropical and subtropical regions of Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Americas.




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Their honey is different in taste and consistency to honey bee honey. It has a higher water content, so it’s a lot runnier and tastes quite tangy. Stingless bee honey is an important food and income source for many traditional communities around the world.

Harvesting “sugarbag”, as it’s known in Australia, is an important cultural tradition for indigenous communities in northern and eastern regions.

A sugarbag bee.
James Niland/Flickr, CC BY

Stingless bee honey production hasn’t reached the commercial success of honey bee honey, mostly because stingless bee colonies produce a lot less honey than an Apis honey bee hive and are more complicated to harvest. But keeping stingless bees in their native range for honey, pollination services and human well-being is an increasing trend.

Bumblebees also make honey, albeit on a very small scale. The nectar they store in wax honey pots is mostly for the queen’s consumption, to maintain her energy during reproduction. Because very few bumblebee colonies establish permanently, they don’t need to store large quantities of honey. This makes it almost impossible to manage these bees for honey production.

Bees aren’t the only hymenopterans that make honey. Some species of paper wasps, particularly the Mexican honey wasps (Brachygastra spp.), also store excess nectar in their cardboard nests. Local indigenous communities value these wasps as a source of food, income and traditional medicine.

Mexican honey wasp.
Wikimedia Commons

Ants have similar lifestyles to their bee and wasp cousins and are common nectar foragers. Some species also make honey.

“Honeypot ant” is a common name for the many species of ant with workers that store honey in their abdomen. These individuals, called repletes, can swell their abdomens many times the normal size with the nectar they gorge. They act as food reservoirs for their colony, but are also harvested by humans, particularly by indigenous communities in arid regions.

Close-up of three large replete honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus mimicus) at Oakland Zoo.
via Wikimedia Commons

These ants don’t just collect nectar from flowers, but also sap leaks on plant stems (called extrafloral nectaries) and honeydew produced by hemipteran sap-suckers like aphids and scale insects.

Aphids and scale insects aren’t all bad – they produce a delicious sugary syrup called honeydew. We mostly know these insects as garden and crop pests: warty lumps huddled on plant stems, often coated in sticky honeydew and the black sooty mould that thrives on the sugar.

Males of these insect species are usually short-lived, but females can live for months, sucking plant sap and releasing sweet sticky honeydew as waste from their rears. The sugar composition varies greatly depending on both the plant and the sap-sucking species.

Honeydew has long been a valuable sugar source for indigenous cultures in many parts of the world where native honey-producing bees are scarce. Many other animals that seek out floral nectar, like bees, flies, butterflies, moths and ants, also feed on honeydew. It’s an especially valuable resource over winter or when floral resources are scarce, and not just for other insects; geckoes, honeyeaters, other small birds, possums and gliders are all known to feed on honeydew.

Honeydew on a leaf.
Dmitri Don/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

It’s also an indirect source of honey bee honey: plant sap that has been recycled through two different insect species! Honey bees are well-known honeydew collectors. In some parts of Europe, honeydew is an important forage resource for bee colonies.

Honeydew honeys have a unique flavour, depending on the host tree the scale insects were feeding on. Famous examples of this specialty honey are the German Black Forest honey and New Zealand’s Honeydew honey.




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So why not find out a bit more about what insects are producing honey in your local region?The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.