Bumblebees in the news

Biobest (www.biobest.be) is a worldwide authority in pollination and biological pest control for protected crops. The company has issued a press release that says 2012 will go down as one of the worst European springs on record. They say the miserable weather has fruit growers across Europe facing decimated crop yields.

This year, the dismal weather has kept pollinators from flying during key periods of pollination. Frost damage was also an issue, and this unfortunate combination has European producers expecting a mere tenth of their normal crop. To make things worse, the frost and poor pollination mean the remaining fruits are of lower quality.

Fruit growers are accustomed to occasional poor pollination, but combine recent weather patterns with declining bee populations and you’ve got a serious problem, says Biobest. This increasing threat of pollinator problems to fruit production has been recognised for some time.

Fruit producers have traditionally relied on honeybees, but availability of honeybee hives has declined as a result of bee health issues, fewer beekeepers, and competition from other insect-pollinated crops such as oil seed rape. Biobest say the solution is bumblebees. For over 25 years, Biobest has pioneered commercial bumblebee pollination.

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees will brave wind and cold, flying earlier in the season and even on the darkest days. They work harder and faster than honeybees, and being native to Europe, are uniquely adapted to local conditions. This makes them a vital tool for growers looking to safeguard their crop. Larger body size means pollen clings more easily, while natural behaviour such as buzz pollination (flower shaking) enhances pollination further.

In order to allow bumblebees to be used in outdoor crops, Biobest has developed special weatherproof nest boxes (multi-hives), which house up to three bumblebee colonies, protecting them from rain and providing insulation.

Biobest also offers dedicatedinternational advisors to train growers and personalise the system. Farmers using bumblebees have managed to obtain good fruit-set even under the extremely adverse weather conditions experienced this year. Regrettably, these “exceptional” weather conditions are likely to become less exceptional as the climate becomes more unpredictable. Using bumblebees for pollination is therefore an effective way for European growers to ensure crop yield – even in the worst of springs

In Australia, bumblebees are not allowed import, although this important pollinator is already present in Tasmania, where growers are perplexed by the continued resistance to allow bumblebee pollination in that state.

Australian Honey Bee Industry Council chairman and Tasmanian Beekeepers Association president Lindsay Bourke recently told Tasmanian Country (‘Bumble Buzz a Crop Gift’, Friday 7 September 2012), that he has no objections to the use of bumblebees in Tasmania.

“However, the concern is if they spread to the mainland,’’ Mr Bourke said.

‘‘They can be a pest for beekeepers because the bumblebees try to rob honey from the hive. For example, leatherwood honey has a beautiful perfume and they will chase down that smell.’’

One of Tasmania’s leading tomato growers, Marcus Brandsema, who co-manages J&A Brandsema with his brother Anthony at Turners Beach on the northwest coast, struggles to understand why the industry cannot use bumblebees because they are already here.

Presently, there are restrictions under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which prohibits the possession of illegally imported specimens and the progeny of such specimens.

‘‘Regardless of any act or legislation, since the early 1990s bumblebees have become part of the Tasmanian landscape,’’ Mr Brandsema told Tasmanian Country.

Mr Brandsema was recently appointed as the new Chairman of Protected Cropping Australia, the peak national association for commercial hydroponics and greenhouse growers.
‘‘No person or organisation has come forward with evidence of any alleged environmental devastation.

‘‘The industry states the use of bumblebees would cut pollination costs to 25% of manual pollination, and increase productivity by about 15%, especially in greenhouse tomato crops.

‘‘But many opponents don’t appear to understand the benefits to be derived from their use,’’ Mr Brandsema said.

‘‘As they are now widely spread throughout Tasmania, an excellent industry for our state could be developed, supporting what could potentially be a huge boom for intensive horticulture in Tasmania.’’

Mr Brandsema said the rearing of hives using Tasmanian stock would have a negligible effect on the existing endemic population, and that of the honey bee. He makes the point that with the likely incursion of the Asian bee and varroa mite, it would be a responsible approach to look carefully at pollination alternatives to ensure ongoing viability of Australian food crops. He added that Tasmania would be a distinctive drawcard in attracting interstate-overseas investment in horticultural enterprise.

But Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Sid Sidebottom said unfortunately bumblebees were listed as a pest species, and were unlikely to comply as a potential industry.