Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can’t fail to have some degree of awareness of the potential crisis facing worldwide food production as a result of the collapse of bee colonies. A huge amount of food crops are pollinated by bees and therefore at risk if bee numbers dwindle too low – and that is exactly what is happening, particularly in North America. For so many reasons, we are very lucky here in Australia. In this instance our distance from the rest of the world means we have a buffer against some of the suspected causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) such as disease and the Varroa Mite and also because right here in South Australia – on Kangaroo Island (KI) – we have the only pure colony of Ligurian bees in the world.
Ligurian bees are valued as a calm, good-natured and industrious bee and were introduced to Kangaroo Island from their home in Italy in 1884. The island was subsequently declared a bee sanctuary in 1885 and no other bees have been imported since. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. This means that not only are the bee colonies on KI protected from bee diseases which are present on mainland Australia, but also from the rest of the world thus avoiding the use of antibiotics and chemicals that many bee colonies require to stay viable. A breeding and research resource such as this disease-free and genetically pure strain of bee may well become pivotal in the fight against Colony Collapse Disorder.
Local identity Peter Davis of Island Beehive has one of the largest Ligurian honey-bee operations anywhere in the world and is one of Australia’s biggest organic honey producers. The diligent little bees in his 700-800 hives produce, on average, around 100 tonnes of honey a year. Peter, who was born on KI, came from a background of mixed farming and his parents had bees when he was growing up. What was once a family sideline has now become his family business and the store and processing plant that Peter opened in 2006 is the sweet centre of his enterprise.
In the premises behind the shopfront Peter extracts his honey, uses the beeswax to produce a quirky line of candles and stores the enormous drums of honey which will be exported to both Japan and China. The store itself is where all of the honeys he produces can be tasted and purchased, along with the most diverse selection of bee and honey related products I’ve ever seen. Peter’s wife has an enviable collection of vintage and antique honey pots which she has sourced from around the world and they are all on display in the store, along with a transparent beehive where those precious little insects can be observed going about their business.
But – back to global food security and Peter’s role in it. Bees have a limited capacity to keep themselves warm through the cold northern weather and require a critical mass to do so. A healthy colony stands a much greater chance of surviving so bees weakened by exposure to disease and Varroa Mite enter a difficult season already compromised. At the end of each winter there is always a percentage of colonies which fail to survive the weather, but there has been growing alarm at the increasing rates of colony loss, principally in North America. Recent reports have suggested that up to 70% of bee colonies did not make it through to spring this current year, although when I spoke to Bob Liptrot of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm on Vancouver Island he told me he suspected that the real figure was probably closer to 90%.
The disease-free status of Kangaroo Island bees and the pristine environment in which they thrive means that South Australia has a distinctly precious asset to share with the world. Over the years Peter, along with other Kangaroo Island apiarists, has developed a sideline in breeding up queens and exporting them to the rest of the world and has been regularly doing so for some time. If the situation in North America continues along current lines they may well be looking to Kangaroo Island beekeepers such as Peter Davis to save their pollinators and their crops – sooner rather than later. The importance of maintaining this pristine environment becomes ever more significant in this light and is a responsibility we should all be aware of.
There have been numerous studies into the causes of CCD (and, given the inconclusive results, one wonders who funds them) and the blame has been laid at the feet of various possible causes including viruses, bacterial diseases, the Varroa Mite, the use of pesticides, including neonicotinoids and the rise in the production of GM crops. I asked Peter what he thought was the problem and he was unequivocal in his answer – GM crops.
Kangaroo Island may be small but, due in no small part to its unique environmental properties, is punching well above its weight in distinctive food production, more of which I’ll share with you in the coming weeks. We need to be alert to this asset in our back yard. If you are looking for a foodie getaway it should well and truly be on your radar, so stay tuned for more reasons to spend a few days across the Backstairs Passage.