New Bumblebee Campaign

Bombus terrestris

Bombus terrestris

Once again, Australian hydroponic and greenhouse growers have launched a campaign to allow the use and commercial rearing of bumblebees to pollinate important greenhouse crops, this time in Tasmania. Currently, the possession and use of bumblebees is prohibited in Australia, including Tasmania where they appeared in 1993.

The Protected Cropping Industry’s first submission followed an eight-year investigation, including a three-year Environmental Impact Study following a national workshop to identify all the issues of concern to various groups. Citing over 500 references, the industry’s submission comprehensively addressed all the various arguments. Industry also engaged one of the world’s leading bumblebee experts, whose definitive study of all the key questions posed by both sides of the argument concluded the case was clearly made to permit the commercial introduction of Bombus terrestris onto mainland Australia; but the application failed as a result of a gloom and doom scenario painted by researchers from the University of Tasmania. Ironically, over two decades since bumblebees appeared in Tasmania, researchers have been unable to establish any link between bumblebees and a decline in native flora and fauna, or an increase in sleeper weeds. Nor have researchers been able to commercialise native bees to service commercial greenhouse horticulture in Australia.

Since the first submission, the stakes have risen. Trade agreements with New Zealand and South Korea and soon to be Japan, and trade liberalisation agreements with Chile and Peru, place Australian greenhouse fruit and vegetable producers at a competitive disadvantage. Currently, Australian greenhouse tomato, capsicum, cucumber, eggplant and berry growers must use a vibrating wand, which is used by tapping each plant to ensure pollination. According to the latest submission, manual tomato pollination adds $3 million annually to production cost because of its inefficiency, but is not an impediment to international competitors where bumblebees are used.

In the event of a free trade agreement with China, expected within the next 12 months, Australian greenhouse tomato growers will be at a significant disadvantage against the Chinese, not only with respect to labour costs and environmental laws and regulation, but also key factors of production, such as the use of bumblebees. China has the largest protected cropping industry in the world and is already a major exporter of tomatoes to South East Asia. Additionally, Biosecurity Australia has approved the import of glasshouse tomatoes from New Zealand and Holland, thus placing the local industry at a competitive disadvantage domestically as well as internationally.

The Costa Group, who are driving the new campaign, say the current situation where the use of bumblebees in Tasmania is prohibited, is patently absurd. They submit that the ability for greenhouse producers to pollinate crops with bumblebees would be of considerable economic and environmental benefit to Tasmania, and would also potentially generate a level of demand for bumblebees and pollination services that would create a strong growth opportunity for the beekeeping industry, which has historically struggled economically and has little to no opportunity for diversification.

Our news item on a survey of Australian fruit growers and their over-reliance on feral bees for pollination, and the threat of Varroa mite entering Australia, is another strong reason why bumblebees should be allowed to pollinate commercial greenhouse crops in Tasmania. Some pundits say it is not a question of ‘if’ Varroa arrives, but ‘when’!   Ω

Steven Carruthers

PH& July 2014 / Issue 145