Posts Tagged ‘ Australia ’

National Conference for Hydroponic and Greenhouse Growers

Protected Cropping Australia (PCA) is holding its biennial conference from 3 -6 July 2011 at the splendid Adelaide Convention Centre, the most environmentally responsible convention centre in Australia.

Formerly the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Conference, this is the eleventh such national conference. In part, Adelaide has been chosen because it has the highest concentration of greenhouses in Australia and many growers are upgrading and expanding.

The conference starts on Sunday 3 July with the opening of the trade exhibition, which covers a wide range of industry trades, including greenhouses, irrigation and climate controllers, movable screens, seeds, fertilisers, chemicals, growing media, propagators, IPM specialists, etc. As well as Australian and New Zealand companies exhibiting, there are also quite a few from Holland. The exhibition remains open for delegates through Monday and Tuesday.

At the time of going to press there were a few of the 60 stands still available for sponsors and exhibitors.

Lectures and workshops are held all day Monday and Tuesday, presented by Australian and overseas experts, many of whom are international leaders in their field. Nearly 30 different presentations are on the program, so delegates can choose from a wide range of topics.

A highlight will be Dutch expert Ben van Onna introducing the impressive Simcom4 environmental control training package. Included will be updates of international developments in greenhouse and hydroponic technologies, biological control, IPM, etc. Following upon the great success of grower presentations at the previous conference, there will be many more presentations by growers giving their real world experiences.

Also covered are interesting newer areas such as aquaponics and organic hydroponics. New and intending growers are particularly welcome and consequently, the program includes a series of fundamental topics to give them all the basics.

On Wednesday, delegates have the option of going on an all-day farm tour, including a visit to the 17-hectare state-of-the-art d’VineRipe facility mentioned elsewhere in this issue.

Networking is a valuable aspect of these conferences, and there are many opportunities to meet other delegates. Lunch and tea breaks are long enough to maximise time with exhibitors, growers and experts. There are also great social functions, where the emphasis will be on networking. A welcome reception will be held on Sunday evening. The conference banquet dinner will be a fun night and has been moved to Monday, instead of Tuesday, so those delegates who can only leave the farm for a limited period can still attend.

For further information & registration contact:
Conference organisers:
Rick Donnan and Rosemary Viggers
Ph: (02) 4567-7960
Fax: (02) 8569-1064

Maryborough Magic

The Hydroponic Farmers Federation growers’ meeting in Maryborough Victoria at the home of Alma Hydroponics. Run by farmer Ian Mortlock and his wife Wendy, Alma Hydroponics is an enterprise 10 years in the making and an exemplary hands-on hydroponics operation.

Tasman Bay Herbs

A quick look at Tasman Bay Herbs, one of New Zealand’s finest commercial hydroponic herb producers.

Australian protected cropping & hydroponics conference 2011

The 2011 biennial conference of Protected Cropping Australia (PCA) is to be held in Adelaide from Sunday 5 July to Wednesday 8 July 2011.

The AHGA had a recent name change to Protected Cropping Australia Ltd (PCA), because it is the national body representing the full range of crops grown under cover as well as in hydroponics. Adelaide was chosen in part because there has not been a conference there since 1999, but more particularly because it has the most concentrated area of greenhouses in Australia. These range from basic through to new high-tech glasshouses and plastic covered greenhouses.

The conference will be held at the Adelaide Convention Centre, a magnificent state-of-the-art conference centre. The Convention Centre is in the city, close to facilities and accommodation of all standards. The Adelaide Convention Centre prides itself on probably being the most environmentally responsible convention centre in Australia. The City of Adelaide has earned a well-deserved ‘green’ reputation, with a large number of environmentally friendly initiatives and visitor experiences. Renowned for its fine cuisine, South Australia also offers some of Australia’s best wines.

The conference will commence on the Sunday afternoon with the opening of the trade exhibition. In the evening there will be a welcoming function. Monday and Tuesday will consist of a wide range of lectures and workshops. Most of these will be run concurrently so delegates can choose the most appropriate sessions. Presentations will be first-class and up-to-date from experts from both Australian and overseas. This conference will feature presentations from current growers sharing their experiences.

On Wednesday the conference will finish with an optional day of farm visits. These will include high-tech farms as well as state-of-the-art research facilities.

The conference, and particularly the trade show, will provide unique opportunities for sponsors and industry representatives to demonstrate and showcase their products and services, projects and new developments. Conference and trade show updates will be posted on the rebadged website as they occur.

Celebrating more than 20 years as the peak body representing protected cropping and hydroponic growers, the high standard of conference presentations, informative trade exhibits and networking opportunities make this Australia’s premier industry event.

For further information contact:
Conference Organiser,
PO Box 120, Kurmond, NSW 2757 Australia
Ph (02) 4567-7960 Fax: (02) 8569-1064

Issue 100: Wild Storm Shreds Lettuce

May/June – 2008
Author: Steven Carruthers

Wild storms and floods are a natural part of the Australian landscape but they bring with them devastating consequences including distress and disruption to business and livelihoods. STEVEN CARRUTHERS reports on recent extreme weather events in Queensland with a focus on risk management strategies for growers.

The weather bureau reported wind speeds of 150kph.

Open-air hydroponic lettuce and herb growers in south-east Queensland ducked for cover when a wild storm ripped through Harvey Bay, Maryborough, Childers and Bundaberg in early February 2008. Although the weather bureau reported winds of 150kph, estimates in the Childers region put the wind speed much higher. The violent wind snapped large gum trees, flattened fences, crushed NFT growing tables, and shredded crops. The only good news was the dams are overflowing.

Business partners Brian Ellis (left) and Dan Buckley inspect the crop damage.

The network of lettuce and salad growers under the ‘Clean Green’ label reported two hydroponic NFT farms severely damaged with crop losses of 75%, and two farms moderately damaged with a combined crop loss of 20%. The collective damage bill, including clean-up costs, was estimated at over $100,000. Although the growers had infrastructure insurance, they were not covered for clean-up costs or crop losses.

Fallen trees and flying vegetation caused much of the damage.

The wild storm brought with it hail and heavy rain, but it was the driving wind that snapped tree trunks, stripped branches and defoliated towering gum trees that caused much of the damage.

“The whole district was flattened, strewn with broken trees and native vegetation,” said Brian Ellis, the principal grower at Clean Green Hydro.

“It did quite a lot of damage to our farm including damage to fences, several growing tables, one shed, refrigerated vehicles, and it shredded 75% of our crop. The financial loss will be quite heavy, but we have a very solid business and we will survive and prosper,” he added.

Violent winds snapped gum trees that in turn crushed NFT tables.

Brian said that the damage could have been a lot worse. A bamboo windbreak planted along the front of the 5ha property acted as a wind shield to a degree. Additionally, the building structures are cyclone rated and survived the storm, except one shed that was damaged by a fallen gum tree. Unfortunately, the refrigerated vans were parked near large gum trees and there wasn’t enough time to move them. The damage was extensive.

The 5ha Clean Green operation was strewn with broken trees and native vegetation.

The propagation nursery was protected to a large extent by the pack shed nearby, which was cyclone rated. However, some of the growing tables were not so lucky and were crushed by fallen trees and branches. The wild wind also shredded the majority of the lettuce and salad crop on those tables left standing.

“With the storm travelling from north to south, the same direction as the tables, the damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been if the wind was travelling east-west,” commented business partner Dan Buckley.

While the district experienced a complete power failure, the Clean Green operation had purchased an automatic back-up power generator from Brisbane-based Genelite a few weeks before Christmas 2007.

Fortuitously, the generator had been calibrated by technicians only a few days before the storm struck, and it kicked in flawlessly within minutes of the power failure.

“The ‘gen’ equipment sensed the power failure and automatically switched the generator on to power the refrigeration shed, RO equipment, computers, pump sheds and lights. The main problems were keeping the tanks from overflowing and filters from clogging,” Dan said.

In a land frequently ravished by droughts and floods, Australian farmers are renowned for their resilience and hydroponic growers are no different. Typical of many rural farmers, Brian and Dan put a brave face on their loss.

“We can shut down and totally sterilise most of our salad systems,” Brian remarked. “This is the first time in 6 years that we have been able to do this and it will be like starting new again.”

“We recently tried to work out how to get rid of a few trees that we felt were a danger, but we were having trouble doing this due to the closeness of infrastructure. Now the problem is solved,” Dan added.

Unlike many industries, there are no counselling services to help rural farmers and their families through the emotional turmoil following a force majeure. As would be expected, Brian and Dan went through a kaleidoscope of emotions when they inspected the damage to their salad farm operation.

“That first 24 hours was a head spin, flat-out trying to clean up and make sense of it. I was enroute from Brisbane when the storm struck and it was dark when I arrived back at the farm. The next day I had time to look around and take stock; that’s when reality really set in. That was the hard day,” reflected Brian.

Despite the crop losses, customers, suppliers and employees stuck by the Clean Green team who were back in business and harvesting fresh lettuce and salad crops within three weeks of the storm.

“Times like this give us renewed appreciation for our friends, family, employees, customers and suppliers. They have all been great,” said Brian.

“Dan rang our employees the evening of the storm. The next morning they were all there early with a number of our friends with chainsaws and trailers to assist with the clean-up. We have a great team and are very appreciative of them. They worked their butts off that day in hot and extremely humid conditions.”

“This industry can wear you down after a few years and it sometimes takes something like this to motivate us into mentally regrouping ready for a new charge,” continued Brian. “We will learn from this, make a few changes and move forward,” he added.

Clean Green Hydro is insured by AON Risk Services (, a farm insurance specialist underwritten by CGU.

Farm vehicles were extensively damaged.

“They were excellent,” commented Brian. “I rang our Bundaberg-based broker on Friday and left a message. He called first thing Saturday and arranged for one of our vehicles to have a new windscreen fitted that day so at least we had a fridge van for Monday. He made sure he was contactable throughout the weekend, which made things much easier for us. The assessor arrived first thing Monday morning and was also very efficient.”

Growers can expect more extreme weather events

In addition to wild, violent storms, growers in Queensland and northern New South Wales have been inundated with heavy rains and floodwaters since late December 2007, with two-thirds of Queensland underwater and declared national disaster areas. How quickly the landscape has changed following a prolonged drought.

At its height, floodwaters covered two-thirds of Queensland.

The heavy rains were the result of intense monsoon troughs that swept across northern Australia during the 2007-08 monsoon season. If you talk to the locals they will tell you this year’s wet season is how it was before the drought. However, it would be foolhardy to think the seasons are normalising. At a recent climate change workshop organised by Growcom, an advocate organisation for the Queensland horticulture industry, grower delegates were warned to expect more intense storms and heavy rainfall for some time yet.

Flood waters can take several days to flow downstream.

According to south-east Queensland parsley growers Lisa and Ray Crooks from Riverview Herbs, the heavy rains need to happen to replenish the under-ground aquafiers and to fill many dry dams.

“This will create sustainability in the long run,” said Lisa.

“We were fortunate with the floods,” she continued. “The local river normally sits at half a metre, reached the 15 metre mark and luckily didn’t reach over the banks. Our issue was the back-up water from the river covering the entrance to the farm. This only lasts about two days when it happens.”

Floodwaters inundate this grower camp in the Beaudesert district.

Lisa and Ray own two farms in the Beaudesert district growing parsley in the ground and in raised hydroponic media beds. As long-time growers, they have experienced the emotional rollercoaster ride that comes with drought, storms and flood and they have developed some fundamental risk management strategies to minimise potential damage.

“When flooding is predicted, a lot of the harvested (plant) stock is bought back to this farm and stored in the cold room,” explains Lisa. “Ray has been a great weather man for many years; I knew he was expecting a great wet this year because I got my first clothes dryer for Christmas.

“When he prepares the land for summer, he always hills up the media rows as high as he can go,” she added.

Lisa advises that the internet is a great farming tool. For Australian growers, she recommends the Bureau of Meteorology ( The Bureau’s weather services encompass a wide range of forecasts, warnings, current weather observations and information services to the general public, national and international shipping and aviation, the Department of Defence and other groups. A number of offices around the country issue forecast warnings and other weather information and maintain a 24-hour, seven days a week weather watch service.

“From this website, we watch the weather, and forecasts, the rainfall data, and the river heights. We can have no rain here, yet up on the range further down the Logan River they may have a downpour which we can expect to see in two days time with rising river levels.

“As growers you try to implement risk management strategies as much as possible but no matter how hard you work, the likelihood of being affected by floods, mini cyclones, hail, etc., is a reality at some time during your farming life. It is how you deal with the situation that matters most,” she said.

Risk management strategies
So what can growers learn from these events to prevent or minimise farm damage during bad weather and extreme weather events?

Weather monitoring
By monitoring the weather growers can prepare for bad weather by ‘battening down the hatches’. For floodwaters and violent storms, this means sandbagging flood prone infrastructure and securing all loose items so that they don’t become flying missiles or floating obstacles. During Cyclone Tracy that devastated Darwin on Christmas eve 1974, the coastal buildings suffered little damage compared to inland structures that were flattened by a wave of flying debris that multiplied the further the cyclone travelled inland.

The weather bureau is also the first place growers should go before building new infrastructure to support hydroponic and greenhouse operations. The bureau offers detailed historical weather statistics for regions throughout Australia. However, violent storms and floods can and do occur anywhere and anytime in Australia, from the alpine regions of Tasmania to the tropical rainforests of northern Australia, and everywhere in between. Extreme weather events can also be unpredictable and arrive unexpectedly.

Building guidelines
Valuable information on building codes and local regulations can be obtained from your Shire Council. Greenhouse and system installation suppliers are also happy to supply technical information to back up the strength and integrity of their designs. More building guidelines can be found in the publications, Building a Greenhouse and Guidelines for the development of controlled environment horticulture, available from the NSW Department of Primary Industries ( Collectively, this information should give growers a clear understanding of what sort of infrastructure is required to withstand an extreme weather event in your region. Be sure to check the 100-year flood level.

Risk management strategies can also include the establishment of windbreaks, which should be located a suitable distance away from farm infrastructure to prevent crop shadowing as well as crop and building damage from falling trees. Check with your district horticulturist for the most suitable tree species to plant for windbreaks in your area.

Tree and shrub windbreaks are also valuable conservation tools with many functions. Their benefits include:
• Crop protection – Windbreaks can increase crop yields up to 44% ( Wind protection reduces crop water use, increases a plant’s ability to make food, and may increase pollination. The quality of fruit and other high value crops can be increased due to reduced sand and soil abrasion.
• Reduced soil erosion – Windbreaks prevent wind erosion for 10 to 20 times their height downwind. They also filter wind-blown soil particles from the air.
• Energy conservation – Windbreaks can reduce winter heating costs 20 to 40% by reducing cold air infiltration into buildings. In summer, water evaporation from leaves directly cools the air.

There are also other benefits in windbreaks including a home for wildlife, visual beauty, and tree products such as firewood.

Hail netting
For open-air hydroponic growers, the case for hail netting is strong and it should be considered in any risk management assessment.

“Most netting structures we manufacture and install are able to withstand wind loads up to 147kph and greater,” said Warwick Fletcher from Ballina-based Coast Guard Netting Services.

“The higher the shade factor, the closer together the cross cable span, the higher the wind rating,” he added.

By example, Warwick points to a netting structure on a production nursery in far-north Queensland that withstood wind speeds of 240kph (150mph) when Cyclone Larry struck during the 2005-06 Southern Hemisphere tropical cyclone season. The covering had a shade factor of 40% with cross cables every 6 metres.

“Only the side walls were blown out by the cyclone,” commented Warwick.

What makes these covers work so well is the structural system. The netting uses steel cross cables over the netting, which are high tensioned to give the structure rigidity and a long life span. They call this innovative system a ‘cable span’ structure. The pole supports are buried 1 metre in the ground and the cable rods (ends) are anchored to treated logs that are buried 2 metres underground. The cross cables are tensioned to 2 tonne and have a 5.2 tonne breaking strain.

“Once the cross cables are tensioned there is no movement,” explains Warwick. “The cross cables and anchors are designed to put the poles under compression,” he added.

Warwick commented that a properly designed and installed hail net structure with side walls would have withstood the driving winds experienced by the Childers growers and prevented or minimised crop damage.

The benefits of hail netting are primarily weather-related. However, from a grower perspective, the downside is loss of colour in leafy crops and, of course, the installation cost.

Back-up systems
Back-up systems such as an emergency generator to restore power are another risk management strategy. However, power generators come at a cost that may be prohibitive for small operators.

Standby generators are either engine driven or tractor driven. Either type can be stationary or portable. Engine driven units can be either manual or automatic start. Petrol, LP gas (bottled gas) and diesel-fuel engines are available.

Generators must provide the same type of power at the same voltage and frequency as that supplied by power lines. An air-cooled engine is often used for generators up to 15 kilowatts. A liquid-cooled engine is necessary for generators larger than 15 kilowatts. Engine capacity of 2 to 21/4 hp with the proper drive system must be available for each 1,000 watts of generator output.

Automatic engine-powered, full-load systems will begin to furnish power immediately, or up to 30 seconds after power is off. Smaller and less expensive part-load systems may be enough to handle essential equipment during an emergency.

Farm insurance
Not all insurers will provide cover for tempest or flood damage, sometimes referred to as ‘Special Perils’. A ‘tempest’ is defined as a violent windstorm, frequently accompanied by rain, snow, or hail, and a ‘flood’ is defined as water from a river, creek, lake, reservoir, dam or navigable canal that overflows onto normally dry land. You can be insured for flood damage caused by a broken pipe, but not for floodwaters spilling from a waterway. Damage from a tempest or floodwaters are seldom part of basic property insurance policies, and generally have to be added separately.

Make sure infrastructure such as farm vehicles are insured. Not all insurers include farm vehicles as part of their policy.

Few insurers cover clean-up costs, unless felled trees or other storm debris lie across infrastructure that needs to be repaired or replaced. Crop loss is another area difficult to get cover. One insurer that does cover clean-up cost and crop loss is Agricola Crop Insurance, the largest insurer of agriculture crops in Australia and New Zealand. Agricola specialise in protection against damage to greenhouses and crops (on an agreed value) in the one policy. Outdoor plant and propagation nurseries may be covered as well as other buildings directly associated with the business, such as packing sheds and cool rooms.

“The policy has been designed to meet the particular needs of today’s greenhouse and nursery producers,” said Agricola’s Rebecca Walkerden, “but the greenhouse policy does not cover open-air hydroponic crop production, nor does it cover trucks and vans – only assets directly associated with a greenhouse.”

Events insured against by Agricola include storm (including hail), water damage, fire, smoke damage, lightning, explosion, malicious damage, impact and earthquake. The Agricola policy includes a standard $15,000 clean-up cost, which can be increased for a higher premium. The policy also covers business interruption, machinery breakdown, electronic equipment, burglary and money lost or stolen during transit. The Agriocola policy can be viewed or downloaded from the insurer’s website (

Generally, the insurance industry has been slow to respond to insurance claims following a spate of extreme weather events up and down the east coast of Australia over recent months, and you can bet insurance premiums will soon rise.

Agricola Crop Insurance

AON Risk Services

Building a Greenhouse

Bureau of Meterology

Guidelines for the development of controlled environment horticulture

Utah State University Extension: Windbreaks Benefits and Design

Issue 88: Bumblebees for Pollination of Greenhouse Tomato Crops in Australia

May/June – 2006
Author: Steven Carruthers

STEVEN CARRUTHERS provides an update on the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association’s application to import bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) onto the mainland to pollinate greenhouse tomato crops Crops in Australia.

Following a review period of 40 business days on the Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) website to allow the public and industry stakeholders the opportunity to comment, the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) plans to proceed ahead with its application to allow the import of bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) on to the Australian mainland to pollinate greenhouse tomato crops.

The industry’s application to import bumblebees follows an eight-year investigation including a three-year Environmental Impact Study (EIS) following a national workshop to identify all the issues of concern to various groups, and an independent ‘Climex’ study to identify possible impacts on the Australian mainland. The AHGA engaged one of the world’s leading bumblebee experts, Dr Don Griffiths, from the United Kingdom, whose definitive study of all the key questions posed by both sides of the argument concludes with the following statement:

“If one considers all the facts given, then the case is clearly made to permit the commercial introduction of Bombus terrestris onto mainland Australia.”

Bumblebees were accidentally introduced into Tasmania in 1992. Although they have spread throughout the island State, studies have shown that they are mainly found in urban areas rich in imported floral species, the preferred plants of bumblebees. The EIS study found no adverse impacts to warrant their exclusion from the mainland to pollinate commercial greenhouse tomato crops.

“Bumblebee technology is available to almost every country on the planet except Australia.”

Currently, growers pollinate their tomato crops three times a week using mechanical hand-held vibrators touching each plant. The industry estimates that it costs Australian growers $25,000 to manually pollinate 1 hectare (10,000sqm) of tomatoes, against $7,000 for bumblebee pollination, a saving of $18,000 per hectare. This is a 72% saving or in excess of $8 million annually industry-wide, as well as improving tomato yields, quality and shelf life. Without bumblebee technology, Australian greenhouse tomato growers say they will be unable to compete with cheap tomato imports.

“Bumblebee technology is available to almost every country on the planet except Australia,” said AHGA President, Mr Graeme Smith.

“Pressure from NZ imports, with recent approval for importation of Dutch produce, and with Chinese imports on the horizon, means that if the industry hopes to match production standards with our international competitors, all of which use bumblebees, then access to this technology is mandatory.”

Mr Smith said: “The industry is not proposing to release bumblebees into the Australian environment. They will be confined to sealed greenhouses within hives specially fitted with a queen excluder device that allows only non-breeding worker bees into the crop. The technology is currently used in the USA and Canada to prevent the eastern bumblebee species, Bombus impatiens, from establishing in the west of that continent.

“On the basis of existing knowledge and climate restrictions, in the unlikely event of escape or accident, the AHGA predicts any chance of bumblebees establishing in Australia’s harsh environment to be very limited and transient,” said Mr Smith.

“Spurious claims that bumblebees are another cane toad or fox are clearly false.”

According to the industry’s research, bumblebees prefer exotic (introduced) plant species (90%), compared to native species (only 10%); therefore, there is little likelihood of any competition for floral resources.

Mr Smith added: “Spurious claims that bumblebees are another cane toad or fox are clearly false,” and he cited many positive examples of species imported into Australia such as the leafcutter bee, European honeybee, sheep, cattle, brown trout, and even the dung beetle without which inland Australia would be a mess. While Australia has its own native dung beetle, it simply can’t cope with the tonnes of dung expelled by imported animals on a daily basis. The dung beetle is also a friend in the cities of Australia, ridding parks of tonnes of dog droppings that occur every day.

Returning to bumblebees, the AHGA proposes to import only certified pathogen and parasite-free bumblebee stock from reputable producers. Mr Smith said that any parasite or pathogen that has been associated with Bombus terrestrisis unique to bumblebees and poses no risk to Australian honeybees or native bees.

“Despite the gloom and doom scenario painted by a few individuals, no adverse effects have been shown there.” (in Tasmania)

The industry’s detailed report points to previous releases of bumblebees on the Australian mainland in the 1800’s and 1900’s that failed to colonise. Although there were no studies conducted on these releases, Australia’s harsh climate and lack of all-year-round floral resources, are thought to be contributing factors why they didn’t colonise. In their native distribution range, bumblebees are only found between latitude 60°N and 30°N, which helps explain why they have established in New Zealand and Tasmania which enjoy similar climates. Ants are also thought to be a contributing factor for the failure of previous bumblebee releases on the mainland to colonise. Unlike honeybees that build their hives above the ground, bumblebees are ground nesters, usually in damp areas.

In the event that bumblebees do establish on the mainland, an AHGA-funded Climex study indicates that any distribution will be confined to the cooler, wetter areas and limited to Victoria, just over the NSW border, and the southwest corner of WA.

“First reported sightings of bumblebees in Tasmania, which has a much more suitable climate, were around 1992,” said Mr Smith. “Despite the gloom and doom scenario painted by a few individuals, no adverse effects have been shown there.

“Bumblebees have been present in New Zealand for over 100 years, and are popular with farmers and public alike. Over this time there have been no definitive examples of any negative effect on that country’s native flora and fauna, and reports of a negative impact in Israel and Japan are false, having been based on poor and limited research,” said Mr Smith.

“The threat to the survival of the Swift Parrot has everything to do with land clearing, wood chipping and habitat destruction.”

Mr Smith added that any threat to endangered Australian birds is pure speculation. While there has been some suggestion that bumblebees are a threat to the survival of the Swift Parrot, the EIS has shown a low bumblebee visitation rate (2%) to favoured blue gum flowers, compared to 56% for honeybees and 25% for birds.

“The threat to the survival of the Swift Parrot has everything to do with land clearing, wood chipping and habitat destruction,” he said.

Overseas experience has shown that bumblebees work long hours and have a high flower visitation rate, around 450 flowers/hr. They buzz pollinate, can tolerate the physical conditions existing within a commercial greenhouse, are housed in trouble-free hives suitable for delivery to growers, breed in sufficient numbers to provide the correct ratio of bees to open flowers (240,000 flowers/ha/week), and are available 52 weeks per year.

“Can they (blue-banded bees) be reared cost-effectively, 52 weeks a year?”

Mr Smith said that while native bee research is encouraged, the industry must be practical. Current research to develop a commercial solution using native blue-banded bees is now in its third year, and still a long way from developing economically viable commercial hives for pollination.

“Will this ever be accomplished, and if so, in what time frame 5, 10, 20 years,” questioned Mr Smith. “Can they ever hope to meet the requirements of a rapidly developing and expanding high technology industry? Can they be reared cost-effectively, 52 weeks a year? How much research money will be needed, with the possible result of no suitable alternatives at the end of it all?”

Although native bee researchers have been successful in breeding small numbers of blue-banded bees using clay and brick mortar nests in the greenhouse, it is not economical to ship mortar hives around the country. Researchers speculate that growers will maintain mortar hives within their greenhouse, which will be replenished regularly; however, the growers I have spoken to say they are simply replacing one labour cost for another and it is unlikely they will maintain permanent hives. By comparison, bumblebees are delivered in cardboard boxes which come with feeders for the life of the artificial hive – for bluebanded-bees, growers will be required to replenish feeders strategically located throughout the greenhouse. For bumblebees, all the grower is required to do is position the hive and open the cardboard entry/exit flap.

There is also a concern about the unusually large breeding area (5,000sqm) required to supply the entire hydroponic greenhouse tomato industry with fresh native bees on a monthly basis. The industry is currently going through expansion with at least another 24 ha of greenhouse production area due to come online during 2006. Presumably, this breeding area would need to expand to meet the future demand of the industry.

There are still many questions to be answered, and no certainty researchers will be able to deliver a commercially viable native bee alternative to bumblebee technology; if at all.

The AHGA believes it has a strong case for allowing the distribution of secure hives of B. terrestristo mainland greenhouses, and it hopes that the misinformation campaign against bumblebees will not prejudice the final outcome. To date, conservationists have been running a strong campaign against the application and they have succeeded in having the bumblebee listed as a ‘Key Threatening Process’ in Victoria and NSW; however, the Federal Government declined to support their application due to “insufficient evidence to support the claim”.

There have been public claims reporting that bumblebees are a pest in other countries, whereas a search of the scientific literature shows that the bumblebee is not regarded as a pest anywhere in the world. ABC Landlinealso incorrectly reported (12 February) that the Australian Quarantine InspectionService (AQIS) had already rejected an application to import bumblebees, when the application submitted by the AHGA is still with the DEH and has not yet been passed on to AQIS. These incorrect reports should be of real concern to industry for the success of its application.

Cost:benefit calculation
Bumblebees are very efficient pollinators. They can deliver up to a 28% increase in production in ideal conditions, at a cost of only 1% of production. If we assume even 10% improvement, then growers can make their own calculations:

Greenhouse size x Average Yield per m 2 x Average Gross Return per kg x 10% = improved yield by bumblebees.

Sample calculation for 4000sqm:
4,000 x 45kg/sqm x $3.00 x 10% = $54,000
Plus labour savings above – 4,000 x $1.80 = $7,200
Total saving = $61, 200

NOTE: These costings do not factor-in improved working conditions and worker safety that can flow on from the use of bumblebees.

About the author
Steven Carruthers is the Managing Editor of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine and Vice-President of the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association. Email:  Ω

PH&G May/June 2006 / Issue 88

Issue 80: “Top of the Range” Truss Tomatoes

January/February – 2005
Author: Steven Carruthers

Work has started on the most technologically advanced greenhouse in Australia, expected to come on-line in September 2005. The new facility will be highly automated and deliver consistently high quality truss tomatoes to supermarkets along the east coast of Australia – all year round.

The NSW Minister for Regional Development, David Campbell, recently announced that construction has started in Guyra, NSW, on a $24 million glasshouse facility that will be the largest and most technologically advanced glasshouse in Australia. When complete, the 20ha (200,000sqm) growing facility, will supply high quality truss tomatoes to supermarkets from Melbourne to Brisbane, and employ up to 200 permanent fulltime and permanent seasonal staff recruited from the New England region.

“This is great news for the people and the economy of Guyra,” said David Campbell. “The project also has the potential to make Guyra a leader in horticultural development throughout the region,” he added.

Work begun on Stage 1 of the project in mid-November 2004 with the construction of a 5ha glasshouse and packing shed facility to be operational by May 2005 and harvesting by September 2005. Stage 2 will see the construction of a 5ha glasshouse extension, which will be operational by May 2006. This will be followed with the construction of a 10ha glasshouse with the timing to be determined by market conditions. When complete, the facility will be more than five times the size of the Melbourne or Sydney cricket grounds. According to the operator, Kos Fresh Produce, the development would happen much faster if Australia had the skilled human resources to manage the facility. As a result, the company recently recruited graduate horticulturists to undergo fully subsidised training for three months at a leading greenhouse establishment in Holland.

Kos Fresh Produce is part of the Costa Group, Australia’s leading private handler of fresh produce, managing over A$900 million worth of fresh produce per annum throughout Australasia. The company operates 18 business divisions ranging from fruit and vegetable production, wholesaling and retailing, export and import, pre-packing, logistics, contract procurement and quality management. The company employs nearly 900 people around Australia.

Kos Fresh produce is a joint venture between Michael Shadforth and the Costa Group of companies. It markets hydroponic tomatoes from a network of growers across Australia, as well as provides technical advice and support to help growers increase the quality and yield of their production. The Kos goal is to consistently supply high quality truss tomatoes to markets along the east coast of Australia all-year-round.

Kos Fresh Produce will be the outlet for the produce, which will be sold under the brand name “Top of the Range”. The Costa Group believe the new glasshouse facility will demonstrate to supermarkets and consumers alike that the greenhouse industry can reliably deliver a consistent, high quality truss tomato year-round. They believe the new facility will drive the growth of the industry forward, away from the current ‘high-low’ price situation that depends on what’s available.

Guyra was chosen as the site for Australia’s largest glasshouse facility because of its cool summer temperatures, and sufficient light levels to grow tomatoes through winter at a cost-effective price. Located 38km north of Armidale, 563km north-north-west of Sydney and 427km south-west of Brisbane, Guyra (population 2000) is the most elevated town on the New England Tablelands. The glasshouse business has been named “Top of the Range” because of its location on top of the Great Dividing Range at an altitude of 1320 metres.

While climate was the decisive factor, the company conducted extensive research which included an assessment of:

– the cost of transport of raw materials
– cost of transport of the finished product to market
– cost of labour
– effect of climate on yield
– cost of fuel for heating
– availability and cost of water
– availability and quality of labour
– government support.

According to the principal of KOS Fresh Produce, Mike Shadforth, the company based its major location priorities on overseas experiences. When European growers were asked what they would do differently, they pointed to climate as the major priority, and that was the approach the Costa Group took.

“I think we are the first group in Australia to look at where the best place is to grow tomatoes, and we worked back from there,” said Mike Shadforth.

Of those European growers studied by the Costa Group during the planning phase, they all pointed to size as another important consideration. Most had expanded to sizes that they didn’t dream they’d get to and had outgrown their sites quickly. The remote Guyra site is large enough to expand well into the future.

For the Costa Group, sufficient water supply was a bigger issue than indicated by European growers. “For a 20ha site, you need a minimum of 200 megalitres of good, clean water, and that’s hard to come by in Australia,” said Mike Shadforth.

The Guyra site will be supplied by on-site spring water that will be treated before use in the growing facility.

Another important location priority set by the Costa Group was a sustainable workforce, which will be recruited from the Guyra and Armidale regions. The closure of the local abattoir nine years ago is a big factor in the region’s high unemployment, and nearby New England University is expected to play an important role in skills training for future workers.

The NSW Government through the Department of State and Regional Development, and the Guyra City Council, have been highly supportive of the project, which was another critical reason why Guyra was chosen for this project.

Truss tomatoes are presented with their stems connected in the same way as grapes grow on a vine. Besides their deep red colour and near perfect appearance, the green stem gives off a tomato scent that consumers indentify with freshness. When the first tomato on the truss ripens, the fruit is left on the vine until the last fruit on that hand starts to ripen. Typically, there are 3-6 tomatoes on a truss.

To meet quality standards, the following guidelines have to be adhered to:

– All tomatoes on the truss must have colour so they are truly vine-ripened, allowing their full taste to develop.
– The tomatoes on the truss must be free of blemishes, spots and cuts.
– A truss consists of at least three tomatoes.

As the truss tomatoes are vine ripened, they develop their full taste, while the extended shelf-life of two to three weeks leaves very little loss due to fruit decay for the supermarkets.

Truss tomatoes are harder to grow because they can only be harvested when the last tomato starts ripening, thus making them truly vine-ripened. This could lead to the first tomato splitting or becoming over-ripe for growers with less experience, or poorly equipped greenhouses. There is some competition but most growers struggle to achieve the quality necessary as they do not have the necessary operational experience.

Truss tomatoes are almost impossible to grow in the field because of their delicate nature. Unsuitable weather patterns also means poor pollination and yields of poor quality trusses. The delay in harvesting, the difficulty in gassing, and the delay in ripening without a heating system are also obstacles for field growers to overcome. This is an important competitive advantage for glasshouse-grown truss tomatoes.

Packing Shed
One of the key features of the new facility is the location of the fully automated packing shed, which will be linked to the glasshouses. The ‘H’ design streamlines the flow of tomatoes, which will follow the central walkway in the glasshouse to the packing shed without having to go outside. State-of-the-art packing machinery will automatically unstack trays of tomatoes from the picking trolleys coming from the glasshouse, direct the trays through automatic conveyors, check and weigh product, then automatically palletise the trays ready for transport.

The picking trolleys will be self-powered and use an automatic guidance system to move between areas of the glasshouse and packing shed. The packing shed will also house a cool room, boiler room, irrigation room, lunch room with toilets, and office space.

Gutter Height
A unique feature of the Dutch-designed Van der Hoeven glasshouse will be the 6.3m gutter height, the highest in Australia. This is now the international standard for new glasshouses. According to the Greenhouse Manager, Godfrey Dol, even though Guyra is cool in winter, light intensity and summer temperatures at 30°C latitude from the equator can still be quite extreme and there will be a tendency of heat build-up inside the glasshouse.

Godfrey Dol has over 20 years experience growing greenhouse products in the Middle East, North America and Australia. From his experiences, he said that taller greenhouses consistently stay much cooler. He believes that while a 6.3m gutter height may seem extremely high at this point in time, future greenhouses will be even taller.

“To get cooling in the greenhouse you need proper air movement with plenty of air around the crop. If you have enough air above and underneath the crop, there’s better air circulation in the greenhouse and it doesn’t heat up as much and as quickly, and you don’t need as much ventilation,” said Godfrey Dol.

The Dutch-born grower said that the ventilation capacity of the glasshouse is very important in the summer months and the only cost-efficient means of cooling is through air exchange with the outside air, which will be achieved by computer-controlled roof vents on both sides of the peak of the glasshouse.

Heating System
The heating system will be from gas and coal-fired boilers, which will provide heat to plants during cold weather and dehumidify in humid weather. The heating pipes double as railway tracks for picking trolleys. Flue gas from the gas boilers will be injected into the glasshouse to enrich the atmosphere with CO2. Levels of CO2 and CO will be monitored and controlled by a computer.

Growing System
There are no surprises in the hanging gutter growing system, now considered the standard system for growing truss tomatoes to maximise light, air movement around plants and plant yields. The grower does not plan to inter-plant in the first year of production to minimise potential pest and disease problems. Godfrey Dol predicts a yield of 50kg/sqm in the first year, and the potential for 60kg/sqm in subsequent years.

“There is enough light in Guyra to grow through the winter to get yields that are substantially high enough without increasing the cost of production,” explains Godfrey Dol. “Theoretically, there is enough light to inter-plant and continue yielding 12-months of the year. It’s a big investment and that’s an option,” he added.

Irrigation System
The fertiliser injection and irrigation frequency is computer controlled. The irrigation system will have many features that allow irrigation to continue even when pipes are broken or a pump unit is not operational. Once the glasshouse is fully established, the run-off water from the growing slabs and from rainwater will be sterilised and re-used, reducing both water and fertiliser costs. The grower does not plan to recirculate in the first year of operation, again, to minimise potential disease problems.

The grower’s approach to integrated pest management (IPM) strategies highlights the technological gap in greenhouse production between Australia and other countries with developed greenhouse industries. Australia does not have the same inventory of beneficial insects to control all the pests that can affect a tomato crop compared to overseas, because of Australia’s unique biodiversity and strict quarantine regulations.

“My advice has always been towards biological control, but we don’t have enough tools there to guarantee that we’re going to make it to the end of the line,” said Godfrey Dol. “We will certainly start off biologically, but I can not eliminate the possibility of having to use sprays.”

Godfrey said the industry is not big enough to warrant enough research funding so that we can have enough beneficials.

“I appreciate the problems producers of natural predator insects have because it’s such a small market and it’s a huge outlay to get even one successful insect working in the greenhouse. It’s a big problem, and one that needs an industry approach,” he said.

On bumblebees for pollination, it is the grower’s view that Australia needs to get bumblebees if it ever hopes to match European and New Zealand production yields. “Here we are, 15 years after bumblebees were first used in Holland, and we still can’t use them,” laments Godfrey.

Godfrey highlights that even with bumblebee technology, Australia needs a full program of biological insects to avoid using sprays that will also kill bees. “Once you need to use sprays, all biocontrol and bee pollination programs go out the window,” he said.

Currently, the Australian greenhouse industry is in its infancy. The industry is characterised by small producers with less than a hectare (10, 000sqm), mostly under plastic. Of the 243ha of protected cropping, only about 40ha are high technology glasshouses. However, the greenhouse market, particularly tomatoes, is on the verge of expanding dramatically. This is being driven by three factors:

– Consumer demand for greenhouse products arising from increasing affluent, discerning and health conscious consumers;
– Production has reached or is reaching critical mass, allowing the development of dedicated marketing chains, specialised marketers and stocking of product by major supermarket chains;
– Supermarkets are looking for increased opportunity to provide customers with innovative, high quality and attractive products.

In the European market, truss tomatoes (also known as ‘Tomatoes on the Vine’) established themselves in a relatively short period of 7-10 years. The same thing happened in the US market;and initial response to truss tomatoes indicate the same will happen in Australia.

Despite the construction of large greenhouse projects such as “Top of the Range”, smaller growers will still play an important role in the market. Many of these small growers produce good yields and excellent quality tomatoes, and Kos Fresh Produce will continue to work with these growers to build a strong and vibrant base for hydroponic tomatoes. This market assessment is also supported by overseas trends.

“We see places like New Zealand where the small growers drive the industry,” said Mike Shadforth. “We think low technology greenhouses are going to be our biggest problem in the market because they have low inputs, chop from other crops to tomatoes, and don’t have a business plan or formal business structure,” he added.

For those growers who turned to greenhouse tomato production as a semi-retirement or retirement plan, Mike believes the changing market environment will create opportunities as the demand and range of high quality greenhouse tomato products grow.

“Supermarkets don’t want to see $8.99 truss tomatoes any more,” said Mike Shadforth.

“They’d rather run them at a price where they continually sell, but they don’t have the confidence in the greenhouse industry to deliver because of consistency and quality problems,” he explains.

He said that supermarkets and consumers see quality variation in greenhouse tomatoes which range from very good to really poor. He points to problems where the truss won’t set properly, or the heat brings on smaller tomatoes as the reasons why the industry can not deliver a consistent, high quality product all-year-round. He cites the ‘high-low’ marketing situation for the industry’s poor reputation.

Prices are highest in September and October because of the lack of tomatoes from the field. Prices then level out with February, March and April as the most consistent months. Mike Shadforth believes the industry needs to produce a consistent, high quality truss tomato year-round to restore supermarket and consumer confidence in hydroponic greenhouse tomatoes and the “Top of the Range” facility will help overcome this important industry issue.

There is also a concern that a lack of consistency or quality, or a large enough hole in the supply chain brought about by growers switching crops or leaving the industry, will invite aggressive overseas competition in the Australian market.

“Our biggest problem will be that we can’t grow quick enough to keep them out of our market,” said Mike Shadforth. “If we can get on a constant, be prepared to grow consistent, high quality truss tomatoes year-round, and other growers invest in their operation, then we will have a strong and dynamic industry,” he said.

For the moment, it appears Dutch growers are not interested in filling gap markets;rather, they are looking for consistent, year-round opportunities. Dutch growers are currently fetching 15 Euros/kg for their tomatoes, or around A$0.21/kg. While the cost of shipping to the antipodes may be a repellent for Dutch growers, this situation could change if big enough gaps appear in the Australian market.

Godfrey Dol is Dutch-born Greenhouse Manager who has grown tomatoes for 20 years in the Middle East, North America and Australia. When the greenhouse industry first kicked off in Australia around 10 years ago, a group of investors got together and built what was then known as the Bundaberg Tomato Company. At that time, Godfrey frequently visited Australia with his Australian-born wife and kept in touch with the progress of the industry. When the Bundaberg Tomato Company failed, some of the shareholders bought the company and contacted Godfrey to invite him to work for them. Godfrey accepted the challenge, leaving a successful 16ha greenhouse operation operated by Village Farms in the United Kingdom (see PH&G July/August 1993 – Issue #11).

His first encounter with anyone in terms of Australian conditions was saying he wanted to put a heating system in the Bundaberg greenhouse. Although his approach was met with some scepticism, the shareholders stuck with him. In the first year the greenhouse broke even. Given that they had already lost a bucket of money, the shareholders were impressed and for the next seven years the greenhouse operation rewarded the shareholders with substantial profits. Today, the Bundaberg farm has expanded to 3ha.

Godfrey sees his move to the “Top of the Range” facility as an opportunity to realise his dream to manage the most technologically advanced glasshouse in Australia.

Issue 77: A Bee’s Eye View

July/August – 2004
Author: Steven Carruthers

The cases for and against the importation of bumblebees onto mainland Australia to pollinate crops

STEVEN CARRUTHERS analyses the cases for and against the application to introduce the bumblebee, B. terrestris, onto mainland Australia for crop pollination purposes. Should importation be allowed, he reports bumblebees will not dramatically change the status of the native and agricultural ecosystems, and there will be significant cost-savings for Australian growers as well as improved yields and fruit quality. He writes there will also be environmental benefits with a large reduction in the use of pesticides, that will also lead to improved worker and food safety.

The Australian Hydroponics & Greenhouse Association (AHGA) has taken the next step in applying to the Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) to allow the import of bumblebees ( Bombus terrestris) onto mainland Australia to pollinate commercial greenhouse crops. The final three-step process began in April 2004 when the industry’s Draft Terms of Reference were posted on the DEH website for a period of 10 days to allow members of the public the opportunity to comment. The terms of reference outline the areas that interested parties believe should be examined prior to any determination on the application by the Federal Minister.

Step 2 requires the AHGA to write a detailed report that considers the points raised in the terms of reference, which will then be posted on the DEH website for 20 days to allow for further public comments.

Step 3 requires the AHGA to consider the public comments from Step 2, and produce a ‘final report’ for the Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage. The Minister then consults with other Federal, State and Territory Ministers before deciding whether to add B. terrestris to the list of species suitable for import onto mainland Australia.

Greenhouse growers and other industry members will have their opportunity to have a say during Step 2 of the application process. At the time of going to press, the AHGA was still waiting to receive the public comments from Step 1.

In the meantime, the application to import bumblebees onto mainland Australia has provoked a strong response from conservationists opposed to it.

Bombus terrestris was accidentally introduced into Tasmania in 1992 where, in this most temperate of Australian climates, it has since spread to regions with good rainfall, mostly in urban areas where there is an abundant supply of nectar and pollen from preferred introduced plant species (Hergstrom et al. , 2002). Natural or accidental migration from Tasmania to the mainland cannot be ruled out (interceptions at two ports have been reported recently), but establishment has not so far occurred and is generally considered unlikely given unfavourable climate and lack of continuous food resources.

Broadly, those who oppose the application claim that, if allowed import onto the mainland, B. terrestris will invade a wide range of wilderness areas and compete with native bird and bee species for nectar and pollen, and possibly spread weeds through increasing seed set. Their case is primarily based on the study of bumblebees in Tasmania by Hingston (1999).

The case for the application
Why do Australian growers want bumblebee technology? Bombus terrestris is an effective pollinator of tomatoes because of its ability to extract pollen from the poricidal anthers by vibrating them at an appropriate frequency. Bumblebees are also effective pollinators of other important commercial crops including capsicum, eggplant and strawberry. While honeybees will also pollinate tomatoes, bumblebees are the preferred pollinators in greenhouses because they remain on the crop more than honeybees. Honeybees don’t like the conditions inside the greenhouse and usually escape.

Overseas, bumblebee technology has led to improved Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices in greenhouses, resulting in adoption of biological control and a large reduction in the use of pesticides and other spray chemicals. These chemicals are not only expensive, but compromise food safety, worker health, and the environment.

In Australia, there have been some limited research trials using native bees to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes. The blue-banded bee (Amegilla spp.) has shown the most promise, but goes into dormancy when the weather cools. Tomato flowers do not produce nectar, so researchers also need to develop artificial feeders. Most greenhouse industry experts agree it will be many years before researchers are able to commercialise artificial hives for greenhouse applications, if at all.

Cost:benefit analysis
Currently, Australian greenhouse growers pollinate their crops using mechanical, hand-held vibrators, usually three times weekly at a high labour, equipment and maintenance (battery) cost. The AHGA estimates hand pollination will take 780 man hours per year for a 6,00osqm greenhouse growing two crops per year. On a casual rate of $16/hr, the total labour cost is $12,480/year or $2.08sqm. For a single tomato crop grown over a year, mechanical pollination will take 1,040 man hours at a cost of $16,640 or $2.77/sqm. Then there are the costs of vibrators and expensive batteries, and the secondment of trolleys for pollination duties when they can’t be used for other jobs.

By comparison, in Holland, the cost of bumblebee hives is around AU$117, and AU$140 in New Zealand. According to Dutch greenhouse data, a grower of tomatoes needs eight hives per hectare (8 hives/ha), and a grower of cherry tomatoes needs 12 hives/ha. A hive can have a life expectancy of anywhere between six weeks and three months, depending upon conditions. It’s usual to assume an average hive life of two months.

For cherry tomatoes, it will take seven hives to cover a 6,000sqm greenhouse area. The pollination period would be about 10 months (over two crops), so the grower would need 35 hives/year. Even at $160 per hive, this would be a total of $5, 600/year, or $0.93/sqm/year. This is a saving of $6,880/year compared to hand pollination, and $11,040 for one 12-month tomato crop. In both crop scenarios, there is more than a 50% saving to growers compared to mechanical pollination.

“The overseas experience has shown that bumblebee technology also improves yields and fruit quality and this, of course, is at no extra cost,” said Tasmanian greenhouse tomato grower, Mr Marcus Brandsema, who conducted the analysis on behalf of the AHGA.

Increased overseas competition
Overseas competition is also driving the case to import bumblebees onto mainland Australia. In 2002, Biosecurity Australia (BA) approved the import of greenhouse tomatoes from New Zealand. By December 2002, Australia had imported 330, 000kg of tomatoes worth $796,460. In December 2003, NZ tomato imports rose to 354,900kg worth over $1 million, a growth of 25% over the first year of imports, and the figures for 2004 are set to go even higher. In January, Australia imported 256,000kg of Kiwi tomatoes, valued at around $840,000.

There are apparent mitigating factors for this increase in tomato imports. The NZapplication to allow the import of Kiwi tomatoes was approved on the basis of meeting shortfalls in the Australian market as a result of drought in the Bowen and Bundaberg tomato-producing regions. However, in spite of the ongoing drought, Australia has managed to export five varieties of tomatoes worth more than $5 million a year to New Zealand.

Australian tomato growers will come under even more pressure with the arrival of the first Dutch greenhouse-grown tomatoes. In October 2003, Biosecurity Australia finalised the import conditions for truss tomatoes from the Netherlands to Australia. In the near future, Australian consumers will be introduced to high quality, greenhouse-grown Dutch tomatoes, elegantly packaged as tamper-resistant functional foods. If the marketeers follow European trends, then this packaging will include a symbol of the bumblebee, a consumer guarantee that these tomatoes are pesticide-free.

Both Dutch and New Zealand tomato growers use bumblebee technology to improve fruit yields and quality. In fact, Australia is about the only country with a large protected cropping industry that doesn’t use bumblebee technology. It’s to New Zealand’s credit that growers moved to state-of-the-art greenhouse technology several years ago. Today, all Kiwi tomatoes are grown in modern greenhouses, mostly glass, using automated nutrient management and climate control systems, as well as bumblebee technology to lower production costs compared to Australian growers.

The problem here is that the Australian greenhouse industry is underdeveloped compared to Holland and New Zealand, mainly because of a lack of investment in the industry. However, this is changing with significant greenhouse developments either on the drawing board or underway in Victoria, South Australia, and the Bundaberg region of Queensland.

Nonetheless, growers will still be disadvantaged because Australia has no commercial pollinator and no native species of bumblebee. Although researchers are trialing several native bee species as alternatives to bumblebees, this research is still in its infancy. Of those native bees being trialed, Amegilla shows the most promise as a pollinator of tomato crops however, commercial rearing and the development of artificial hives for greenhouse applications are still many years off. Finding a buzz pollinator that effectively pollinates tomatoes is one issue:rearing it in commercial quantities at an acceptable cost is quite a different proposition. A good reality check is to look at the 10 years of research that has gone into finding a natural enemy for control of western flower thrips in Australia. Many candidates ate thrips, but only one, the Queensland-originating predatory mite Typhlodromips montdorensis, lent itself to mass rearing.

Environmental ImpactStudy
The application to import B. terrestris for commercial use in greenhouses was actually first made in 1997. Concerns raised at the time resulted in a three-year Environmental Impact Study (EIS) on the impact of B. terrestris on Tasmania’s flora and fauna. The EIS was funded by Horticulture Australia and the AHGA, and the outcomes were reviewed in Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses (Issue 69).

The AHGA also funded a climatology study using the CLIMEX model, (Hergstrom, 2003) to predict where B. terrestris is likely to spread should it be allowed importation to mainland Australia, or hitch a ride on strong winds across the Bass Strait.

Both the EIS and CLIMEX studies indicate bumblebees will not dramatically change the status of native and agricultural eco-systems. The CLIMEX study indicates the likelihood of only limited distribution of B. terrestris on mainland Australia should it arrive either by accident or design. The study predicts these areas will be restricted to the wetter areas of Victoria, the south-west corner of Western Australia, and a limited area of NSW across the northeastern border of Victoria, most likely in irrigated areas and urban gardens where there is an abundance of year-round nectar from preferred introduced plant species.

To ensure there are no or limited negative effects of bumblebees establishing in the wild, any importation would be tightly controlled, using ‘clean’ bees. These bees would form the nucleus of the commercial rearing unit. To provide further safeguards, modern commercial bumblebee hives are designed to prevent the escape of queens. It is also possible, but twice as expensive, to design and distribute worker-only nests at the greenhouse site (Griffiths, 2004).

The case against the application
Spearheading the case against the application to import bumblebees onto mainland Australia is the Australian Native Bee Research Centre (ANBRC), which claims bumblebees will invade a wide range of habitats and feed on a wide range of plants with negative impacts on native species. They frequently quote studies by Hingston (1999) as evidence of resource competition. However, industry experts and international scientists say this study is questionable science (see article this issue: ‘A Critical Study’).

The Hingston study on resource competition was conducted over only two days in two small adjacent quadrants, comparing bumblebees foraging with two unidentified native bee species of the Chalicodoma genus (recently renamed the Megachile genus).

However, weaknesses in the methodology make conclusions based on statistical analysis less than reliable. There are also serious omissions in the data on bumblebee activity during the study period.

A good example of the weaknesses in the Hingston experiment was demonstrated when Hergstrom et al. spent hundreds of hours monitoring exactly the same site, and came up with quite a different result.

Those opposed to the application have tried to implicate bumblebees as a potential threat to native bird species that share the same nectar and pollen resources. They particularly point to the endangered Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor), which breeds only in the blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) forests of Tasmania. The Swift Parrot migrates to the mainland every autumn to winter, and can be found mostly in the nectar-rich, box-ironbark forests and woodlands of Victoria and New South Wales. Recent sightings across southern Queensland suggest this species is also a regular visitor to that State.

The conservationists claim the Swift Parrot is largely dependent on nectar and pollen from E. globulus, and there is little breeding in the years when flowering of this tree is poor. They claim B. terrestris robs nectar and pollen from this tree, and point to the Hingston study of bumblebees observed on E. globulus over a four-month period as evidence. Two years later, Hergstrom studied B. terrestris over the same seasonal period, at 18 sites, and came to a completely different result. Hergstrom reports bumblebees only represented 2% of potential pollinators of E. globulus. Honeybees were by far the dominant pollinator (56%), followed by birds (25%). Native bees represented 4% of visitors.

In nature, competition for resources is the norm, not the exception. Even though it appears there will be less nectar available in flowers from each visitor, it’s stretching it to make assumptions on the long-term survival of native species utilising the same food resources, based on observations over a short time period and over a small sample area (1ha of suburban bushland). The fact that different species may feed on E. globulus nectar at some time, is not evidence of a negative impact.

The conservationists also fail to mention a key published paper on the Swift Parrot (McNally and Horrocks, 1999), that finds there were no relationships between measures of eucalypt flowering and densities of Swift Parrot in its winter range in central Victoria.

According to Birds Australia, a respected conservation group, the decline of the Swift Parrot is attributed to land clearing of more than 85% of their preferred wintering habitats, and continual clearing of 500-1,000 hectares of its breeding habitat for commercial wood-chipping every year. Many individuals also die after colliding with man-made structures, such as windows and tennis court fences.

Conservationists also compare bumblebees with honeybees (Apis mellifera) and their impact on Australian eco-systems, but they fail to mention a key study by Manning (1997), which criticises existing scientific studies relating to the impact of honeybees on Australian wildlife. Despite years of study, there is no consensus on the impact of the ubiquitous honeybee on Australian eco-systems.

Those opposed to the application claim bumblebees have invaded every corner of Israel, including the desert, since their introduction there more than a decade ago. They point to the Dafni (1998) study that predicts bumblebees will colonise the country. However, Israeli and international scientists have refuted the methodologies and predictions of this study.

According to Rivka Offenbach, a vegetable consultant in both greenhouse and open field vegetables in the Arava region, the use of bumblebees is widespread over Israel, including the desert areas, but only in greenhouses. “The bees are in closed structures isolated by nets,” she said. “Although the structures are not absolutely sealed, and some bees get out of the greenhouses, there is no spread of these bees in nature, and they are not able to reproduce. We did not find any damage to other insects in the desert,” she added.

According to Dr Shimon Steinberg, principal entomologist with Bio-Bee Biological Systems in Israel and a world-renowned expert on bumblebees, there is no evidence to support Dafni’s conclusions about widespread establishment of B terrestris in Israel (pers. corresp.).

“There is no evidence of feral establishment of B. terrestris in Israel outside its natural range, ” he said.

Apart from Dafni’s ‘research’ on the infamous single tree outside his office, he also co-authored on an area ravaged by fire. Dr Steinberg says this was just re-invasion of limited natural resources after the fire. Dafni admitted that B. terrestris has declined there over the past two years.

Bio-Bee also export B. terrestris to Japan where it was introduced a few years ago – this is significant because this would presumably be a warm temperature species. Japan has a number of native Bombus species, but attempts to commercially mass produce them failed because they were too expensive. Apart from intial opposition from a flawed study, Dr Steinberg reports he is not aware of any problems with B. terrestris in Japan. This is also supported by reports kept in Japan of feral bees.

These aren’t the only issues conservationists have with the application to import bumblebees onto mainland Australia, but they are the most significant. I don’t want to underplay the significance of these issues, especially as it relates to weed species, but space is a premium and the impact of bumblebees on weed species is dealt with in Dr Griffiths’ Critical Study (page 42).

The use of bumblebees to pollinate greenhouse crops will result in a significant increase in yields and fruit quality, as it has done in Europe, the USA, Japan, Israel and New Zealand. Australia is one of the few developed countries that doesn’t have access to bumblebee technology.

Bumblebee technology has also led to improved Integrated Pest Management practices, resulting in a large reduction in the use of pesticides and other spray chemicals. These chemicals are not only expensive, but can compromise food safety, worker safety and the environment.

There have been limited trials using the blue-banded native bee to buzz pollinate tomato flowers, but it will be many years before researchers are able to commercialise artificial hives for greenhouse applications, if at all, by which time bumblebees may have already migrated to the mainland. There has been an appalling lack of communication between native bee researchers and industry, which only recently became aware of the three-year trial to comercialise artificial hives for greenhouse applications. Nearing the end of its first year, the trial has yet to publish any milestone reports.

A cost:benefit analysis of using bumblebees to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes has found bumblebee technology will reduce pollination costs for a 6,000sqm greenhouse by more than 50%. The saving on pesticides is another significant cost saving for growers, and good news for consumers and the environment.

With the accidental introduction of B. terrestris in Tasmania, the industry funded an EIS and CLIMEX study to determine the likely impacts on Tasmania’s flora and fauna as a yardstick to predict likely outcomes on mainland Australia should it be allowed import, or migrates from the island State. Both the EIS and CLIMEX study indicate that bumblebees will not dramatically change the status of native and agricultural eco-systems on mainland Australia, and its distribution will be limited to the wetter regions of Victoria, southern NSW and south-west Western Australia, mainly in urban gardens.

A further safeguard if B. terrestris is approved for commercial release in Australia, is to only import a clean species sourced from a temperate region. This strain, being adapted to a colder climate, would be less likely to survive the hot summers experienced in most parts of mainland Australia, including all of those areas identified in the CLIMEX study as potentially capable of supporting B. terrestris. However, this wouldn’t be the best option for operating in hot greenhouses.

The case against the application has been based on conjecture and questionable science, using material that only supports that position and ignoring all information to the contrary. For example, opponents fail to mention that there have been several attempts to introduce Bombus species onto mainland Australia, including Victoria in the 1930’s and NSW in 1891 and 1912 (these early introductions from New Zealand were probably temperate species, which is why they didn’t establish on the mainland).

Nonetheless, the conservation lobby has been successful in getting B. terrestris listed as a ‘Key Threatening Process’ in Victoria and New South Wales. However, attempts to list the bumblebee as a Key Threatening Process at a Federal level failed when the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, declined the application on the basis of insufficient evidence.

Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), a ‘Key Threatening Process’ is defined as any process that threatens or may threaten the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community. For example, predation by the European Fox is a key threatening process. One suspects that the spectre of foxes and cane toads must have loomed large in government thinking. I have been unable to find any reliable literature where B. terrestris has been listed as a pest, including those countries where Bombus has been introduced for greenhouse pollination.

There are many cautions in biological literature about drawing inferences from short-term observations like those demonstrated in the Hingston studies. In the scale of time, the ‘Swift Parrot Recovery Plan’, an initiative of Birds Australia, reports there have been only three breeding seasons over a 10-year period (1985-95) when food supplies were abundant. This was based on gum honey production figures. Even the three-year Environmental Impact Study is a short study period to arrive at objective conclusions;but this and the CLIMEX study are the best science we have in which to make predictions about the potential establishment and distribution of B. terrestris on the mainland should it be allowed import, or arrive by accident or design.

As a result of claims made by the conservation lobby, the very real issues concerning the impact of bumblebees in Australia have become clouded by emotive statements designed to galvanise public opposition against the application. This makes it very difficult to conduct serious scientific studies that will provide a solid basis for objective decision-making. Questionable science is also the reason why there is no consensus on the impact of honeybees on the Australian biota – the debate will continue!

Greenhouse growers and industry members have an opportunity to show their support for the application during Stage 2 of the process, when the ‘detailed report’ is posted on the DEH website for 20 days.

In the meantime, the industry can only hope that good science prevails.

About the author
Steven Carruthers is the Managing Editor of Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses magazine, and Vice-President of the Australian Hydroponic & Greenhouse Association.

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Griffiths, D. , 2004.
A Critical Study on the Introduction onto mainland Australia of the bumblebee Bombus Terrestris for the commercial pollination of protected tomato and other crops.
Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, July/August 2004, p42-59.

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Hergstrom, K. , 2003.
CLIMEX TM Model to predict where Bombus terrestris will establish in Australia. Australian Hydroponics & Greenhouse Association.

Hingston, A. B. , 1997.
The impact of the large earth bumblebee, Bombus terrestris on Tasmanian ecosystems. University of Tasmania. Honours Thesis.

Hingston, A. B. and McQuillan, P. B. , 1998.
Does the recently introduced bumblebee Bombus terrestris threaten Australian ecosystems? Australian Journal of Ecology 23, 539-549.

Hingston, A. B. and McQuillan, P. B. , 1999.
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McNally, R. and Horrocks, G. , 1999.
Landscape-scale conservation of an endangered migrant: the Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor) in its winter range. Biological Conservation 92, 335-343.

Manning, R., 1997.
The honey bee debate: a critique of scientific studies of honey bees, Apis mellifera, and their alleged impact on Australian wildlife. Victorian Naturalist 114 (1), 12-22.

Rees, S., 2003.
‘True blue’ bees with a buzz, Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, July/August 2003, p40-47.

Steinberg, S., 2004.
Bombus terrestris for natural pollination: 14 years of commercial application in Israel. Practical Hydroponics & Greenhouses, July/August 2004, p60-63.  Ω

PH&G July-August 2004 / Issue 77