Valuing Western Australia’s natural resources for beekeepers

Associate Professor Ben White (benedict.white@uwa.edu.au) and Research Assistant Cheryl Day have created a new questionnaire that is open to all beekeepers in the south-west of Western Australia.

Western Australia’s natural bushland and forests provide a unique opportunity to migratory beekeepers with year-round nectar and pollen supply for their European honey bees (Apis mellifera). Endemic vegetation to the south-west such as Jarrah (E. marginate sp.), Karri (E. diversicolor), Marri/red gum (Corymbia calophylla) and Manuka species (Leptospermum sp.) produce highly valued honeys with varied levels of antimicrobial properties. Coastal sandplain vegetation provide over-wintering food sources for colony health and spring population growth. However, with frequent burning, logging and clearing of natural bushland and forests coupled with altered flowering phenology, possibly due to climate change, the sustainability of the industry and growth is uncertain.

The industry now has over 3,700 registered beekeepers dependent on access to apiary sites and natural resources in the state. Amateur beekeepers, those with 1 – 40 hives, have had the largest growth in numbers and production of all in the sector and have the potential to move in to commercial beekeeping (over 200 hives) and pollination services in the future. However, expansion is limited by availability of productive sites. The decline in the availability of nectar at apiary sites and the loss of sites may see commercial beekeeping decline in the future. There are approximately 4,500 apiary sites on public land with more than half not producing commercially viable nectar flows in any year. The number of apiary sites in backyards, on private land and on crops for pollination services are unknown.

The last comprehensive natural resource study of WA commercial beekeepers was by the Department of Agriculture in 1989-1990. We have digitised this 30 year old survey data and applied today’s average honey prices. Expected average honey production from bush sites on natural vegetation (IBRA) sub regions were valued between $2,500 and $25,500 based on upper and lower honey quota prices. We have also conservatively estimated the loss of honey production as a result of burn incidents for a 38 year period (years 1980 – 2018). Fires and fire related honey production losses was estimated at 60,000 tonnes, worth a present value of $273 – $539 million (wholesale packer prices).

Our research aims to further update this data and information with a questionnaire for all beekeepers and an extension to the geographical area. Our Natural Resources for Beekeepers 2020-21 Questionnaire accommodates for different scales of production and use of natural resources across the south-west of Western Australia. We will examine the geographical significance and economic importance of apiary sites and flora use in relation to year-round colony health and honey production. Results from our 2020-21 questionnaire will support industry with the provision of essential data for evidence-based policy analysis, particularly for decisions about land resource management for commercial beekeepers.

The questionnaire is currently open to all beekeepers.

This research is funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Honey Bee Products.

Image: McGovern, The Wildflower Society of Western Australia (Inc.) Facebook (2018)