Beekeeping (honey bees)

24.05.17

Overview

European honeybees (Apis mellifera) are the most common species of bee used for beekeeping in Australia. Honeybees are kept primarily for honey, bees wax, package bees and, increasingly, to provide pollination services for food and seed crops.

Commercial beekeeping is carried out predominantly along the south east coast of Australia, although it is not exclusive to this area. Australian honey is typically high quality and commands a significant price premium compared to honey from other countries. In 2011, a third of Australian honeybee products were exported. Key export markets include the United Kingdom, Indonesia, North America and Saudi Arabia. According to the ABS figures for the first three quarters of 2013 the top 6 countries to which Australia exported honey are Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Canada, UK and Malaysia

A honeybee colony consists of worker bees, drones and a queen bee; each are visually distinct and play separate roles in the hive. Worker bees play the biggest role because they collect food for the colony and maintain the hive.

Approximately 70% of Australian honey is produced using nectar from native plants. Some commercial crops, such as almonds, rely on bee pollination for crop production which has led to an increasing demand for pollination services.

The peak industry body for honeybees in Australia is The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council and there are also state and amateur associations.

Honeybee facts and figures

  • Australian honey is consumed in more than 38 countries, including Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Canada, UK and Malaysia
  • In 2012, the honeybee industry’s gross value of production was AU$79 million
  • As at 2012 there were approximately 10,000 registered beekeepers across Australia producing up to 30,000 tonnes of honey annually
  • Honeybees communicate the location and type of food resources through complex movements and chemical signals

Production status

As at 2012 there were approximately 10,000 registered beekeepers across Australia producing between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes of honey annually. Bees also contribute to the Australian economy, indirectly, through free pollination services. As at 2013 honeybee pollination was predicted to be worth between AU$4-6 billion to the economy. As at 2013, a fifth of commercial beekeepers were engaged in paid pollination services.

In 2013, the majority of registered beekeepers were in New South Wales (33%) while the rest were in Queensland (31%), Victoria (15%), Western Australia (10%), South Australia (8%) and Tasmania (3%). Most commercial beekeepers keep between 400 and 800 hives, although some have over 3,000.

Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

The most common honeybee product is honey. Honey ranges in colour from pale yellow to dark amber depending on the floral source of nectar collected by the bees. It can be sold in liquid, creamed or candied forms, and each differs in sugar content and crystal size. Honey is eaten raw to accompany bread or cereal and is used in baking and beverages. Honey comb is also sold but is less common.

Other products harvested from honeybees include beeswax and royal jelly. Glands under the bee’s abdomen produce beeswax for use in the hive. Harvested beeswax is used to make candles, lip balm, furniture polish and other products. Royal jelly is secretions that worker bees feed the queen and larvae. It is sold as dietary supplements and used in skin products and some crayons. Royal jelly is popular in Asia, however virtually none is produced in Australia due to the high cost of production compared to Asian countries.

As some crops rely on honeybee pollination to produce fruit, some beekeepers provide pollination services to crop and horticulture farmers. Bees transfer pollen between male and female flowers while collecting nectar and pollen, fertilising the flowers which then produce fruit. Crops such as apples, almonds and cherries are reliant on fertilisation carried out by honeybees to produce high quality fruit. Increasingly beekeepers are paid for these services.

Some beekeepers breed and sell live bees and queen bees domestically and overseas.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Honeybees are in all Australian states but are commercially managed for honey production primarily along the east coast of Australia, ranging from south-east Queensland through to South Australia, including Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory. There are also some commercial producers in the temperate regions of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Climate

Honeybees are located throughout Australia and the greatest limiting factor is the availability of food rather than climate. Excessive temperatures can decrease honeybees travelling speed and thus reduce production capacity. Honeybees will also not forage during rain. Honey production during cold temperatures may also be reduced because honeybees will not fly when it is below 13˚C, although honeybees can tolerate frost. The principle cause of attrition during winter is starvation rather than cold temperatures.

Housing

Beehives are where the honeybee colony store honey. Beehives and frames are often constructed from wooden materials although plastic is also used. Frames contain honey combs and brood, or nursery, areas. Moveable frames must be used in beehives to allow beekeepers to assess bee health and reposition hives. Detailed instructions on hive selection and construction methods are widely available online.

The location of bee hives is important. Choosing an apiary site with a north-east aspect which is sheltered from wind is desirable. Wet and shaded locations should be avoided and the entrance to the beehive should be free from vegetation in order to maximise sunlight on the colony. Close proximity to food and water is advisable, with sources of nectar and pollen located within a two kilometre radius generally being sufficient.

Often bee hives are periodically moved to new sites as the floral conditions dictate. These moves are often within 200-300km although some producers relocate up to 1,000km away. Moves need to be carried out at night while bees are in the hive.

Feed requirements

Honeybees collect nectar from flowering plants to create honey. Honey provides long term food storage to support the colony through winter and periods of nectar shortage. The nutritional content of nectar varies depending on the plant it is sourced from and the composition of the soil which the plant grows in. High protein diets increase the productivity of worker bees and protein needs are supplied by pollen.  Lack of adequate food or nutrition could result in colonies which are more aggressive, are less productive, produce less brood and are unhygienic in the hive. Colonies may also neglect drone larvae, eat drone eggs and, in extreme cases, mature drones will be ejected from the hive. In extreme situations honeybees will also cannibalise worker brood.

Primarily bees collect food from surrounding flora, however when nectar volumes are reduced, supplementary feeding may be required. Beekeepers can monitor food levels by checking honey stores and monitoring flowering plants. Supplementary feeding methods are varied and a beekeeper’s choice of method depends on the money, time and ingenuity they can spare. Sugar or syrup can be provided to colonies during periods of low food availability to fulfil their carbohydrate needs and this can be delivered by tray, bucket, bottle or sugar sprayed crops.

Honeybees require protein from pollen, collected from flowering plants, to feed brood (bee young). Artificial pollen supplements are commercially available, however, supplementary feeding is designed to be a short term solution.

Honeybees need to collect water so bodies of fresh running water are required.

Breeds and breeding

In Australia there are native and introduced bee species. There are over 1,500 species of native honeybee; some are social while others live alone. Native Australian bees come in a range of colours and sizes but produce much less honey than European honeybees.

European bees are typically used for commercial honey production. They are approximately 12mm in size and are yellow or brown with black stripes. European bees have the ability to sting and can build nests in purpose built beehives and in tree hollows.

European bees have three sub-species in Australia (details below) that have developed in response to the different climactic conditions from where they originated. Most Australian bee hives have a hybridisation of these.

Sub-speciesPhysical descriptionCommercial merit
Italian bees(Apis mellifera,ligustica)Uniform colouring, yellow to brown colouredLarge colonies and brood nest size
Caucasian bees(Apis mellifera, caucasia)Grey to blackWork well in cool conditions
Carniolan bees(Apis mellifera, carnica)Grey to blackGood defence against pests No better than Italian or caucasian

 

In a bee colony only the queen reproduces by laying fertilised or unfertilised eggs into wax cells. Unfertilised eggs grow into males while fertilised eggs develop into females. Fertilisation is achieved through impregnation by a male drone bee which is done while flying. The sole task of the drone is to successfully mate with the queen and once this is achieved the drone then dies. Once the eggs hatch, worker bees then feed the larvae until they are fully grown. Grown larvae are then sealed in a cell with beeswax to create a cocoon, from which they emerge as an adult bee. The entire process takes approximately 21 days. Queen bees can determine the ratio of male and female bees by controlling the numbers of fertilised and unfertilised eggs laid.

When selecting for breeding, drones are selected based on the traits of their colonies. Colonies which are disease resistant, are highly productive and have a calm temperament are most desirable.

Breeding and rearing queen bees allows colonies to be restocked and maintain productivity. The desired aim of producing queen bees is to produce a genetically superior queen whose progeny is disease tolerant and long lived. The latter is achieved through careful selection of breeding stock and ensuring the process is carried out in the best possible nutritional circumstances. To successfully breed new queens, a high degree of experience and resources are required. Techniques for breeding vary and some beekeepers temporarily relocate apiaries to ensure ideal breeding conditions.

Queens can also be instrumentally inseminated which allows beekeepers to have full control of breeding. This method allows for semen from multiple drones to be mixed, prior to inseminating the queen, thus increasing genetic diversity. Most breeding queens, whose larvae are used to produce queen bees, are either instrumentally inseminated or control mated.

Sourcing stock

New stock can be purchased from commercial queen bee breeders or experienced beekeepers may breed their own. Some beekeepers, particularly non-commercial beekeepers, obtain bees by catching wild swarms.

Queen bees are typically available for sale from September to March. Queen bees are sold as ‘untested’ or ‘breeder’ queens. An untested queen is a standard production queen whereas a breeder queen is routinely bred using instrumental insemination. Untested queens are typically used for honey production and breeder queens are used by beekeepers rearing their own stock or commercial queen bee breeders. Commercial queen bee breeders mail queen bees to their customers by Express Post.

Health care & pests and diseases

Honeybee colonies can be impacted by a range of pests and disease. Some pests and diseases are specific to adult bees and some to bee broods. Early identification of pests and diseases affecting honeybees is crucial to minimising their impact. General health care can reduce the likelihood of some pests and diseases including: regular replacement of the colony’s queen with a younger queen to keep the bee numbers up; and removal of old, damaged combs.

Two pests that infest hives are the small hive beetle and the wax moth. Both pests destroy the structure of the honeycomb. Occurrences of small hive beetle must be reported to the state department of agriculture in some states.

American foulbrood disease and European foulbrood disease are bacterial diseases and in the case of American foulbrood disease the infected colonies must be destroyed and hives must be either irradiated or burned in a pit and the remains covered. Occurrences of these diseases must be reported to state and territory departments of agriculture. Chalkbrood is a fungal disease affecting bee young and can be managed by destruction of infected frames to limit the spread of the disease and replacing the queen bee with one whose progeny are known to keep chalkbrood under control. Nosema is a fungal disease which infests the gut of adult bees and in some states occurrences must be reported to the state department of agriculture.

Further information on these, and other pests and diseases, is available in the Biosecurity Manual for the Honeybee Industry. Information on viruses which impact commercial honeybees is available from Plant Health Australia’s BeeAware website. Further information on specific disease and control requirements is available from state departments of agriculture.

Infrastructure Requirements

Bees require specialist housing and equipment for successful commercial operation. Basic housing and equipment includes:

  • Bee hives (including frames)
  • Bee suit or protective clothing
  • Bee brush
  • Hive tool
  • Honey extractor
  • Smoker tool
  • Wax moulds (if producing bees wax)
  • Sheds
  • Trucks
  • Extracting equipment

Harvesting & Processing

The primary honey production period is from October to March. Honey is typically ready for harvest when three quarters of the honeycomb frame is capped with wax. If any unripened nectar remains in the comb, the honey is not ready for harvest. It is important not to remove all of the honey because honeybees rely on it to feed the colony during winter and other periods when nectar is scarce. To gauge the level of honey required for the colony, beekeepers should consider the population of the hive, the time of year and the abundance of nectar.

There are a range of methods for removing honey from the hive but the steps involved include removing the bees from the combs and then extracting the honey. To remove bees from the combs, bee escape boards are common and bee blowers are used by many beekeepers with a large number of hives as they are quick to use. Once the bees are removed, a honey extractor is used to extract the honey from the frames.

Commercially sold honey is filtered, heated and clarified before being packaged. Honey for the domestic market is packaged and sent direct to stores and markets. Exported honey is typically sent in bulk or retail packs. Australian honey is graded for colour and quality. Australia uses taste testing and colour grading systems to measure the quality of honey. Lighter honey usually has a milder taste and is considered more economically valuable.

Beeswax can be recovered by heating the combs or by removing the wax cappings off the cells and frames. Once removed, beeswax is completely drained of honey, melted and sieved to remove debris. Typically the beeswax is then poured into a mould and sold in blocks.

Beekeepers selling pollination services relocate their hives to a farmer’s field which requires pollination. Bees naturally visit flowers to collect nectar and pollen and simultaneously pollinate them. Typically, farmers purchasing this service have an obligation to ensure bees are not disturbed or affected by pesticides or herbicides.

Markets and Marketing

There are several ways for beekeepers to sell honey including: selling to contracted buyers; selling honey and value-added products themselves; and exporting. Honey can be marketed as honey produced from multiple flowering plants or honey which is predominantly produced from a single flowering species.

Australian honey is typically high quality and commands a significant price premium compared to honey from other countries. In 2011, a third of Australian honeybee products were exported. Key export markets include Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Canada, UK and Malaysia.

Queen bee breeding is specialised and markets for Australian queen bees and packaged bees exist, especially in North America and the Middle East. Constraining factors include freight costs and when the Australian dollar is high relative to other currencies.

The market for pollination services is growing where crops are completely reliant on pollination to produce fruit. Beekeepers advertise pollination services through industry newsletters and word-of-mouth. During flowering season, a beekeeper will negotiate directly with the farmer for pollination services or a pollination broker will advertise for pollination services through industry newsletters, generally advertising a price per hive, seeking interest from beekeepers.

Risks and Regulations

Risks/challenges

The high mobility of the honeybee industry renders it vulnerable to the spread of pests and diseases. One potential risk to Australian honeybees is the exotic mite, Varroa destructor, which is currently not present in Australia but is an ongoing biosecurity threat. This parasitic mite infests brood cells, weakens pupae and makes colonies susceptible to viral diseases. Varroa is present in all major beekeeping countries worldwide, except Australia. Where Varroa is present, it devastates hives, and requires intensive treatment with miticides, and/or use of non-chemical practices, to manage mite populations. If Varroa mites are observed or the signs of the mite are present, it is important to report it to the Exotic Weeds, Pests and Diseases hotline on 1800 084 881.

Another pest risk is the Asian Honeybee, which is an invasive species that was found in Cairns, north Queensland in 2007. The species (Apis cerana Java genotype) is prevalent throughout parts of Asia and is highly concentrated in Indonesia. Asian honeybees are smaller and less productive than European honeybees and are highly invasive and likely to out-compete other bees and native animals for food and nest sites.

Drought is an environmental risk for beekeepers as it reduces the availability of food for bees. Supplementary feeding and relocation of colonies are both options to manage periods of low food resources.

A physical risk to beekeepers is the bee’s defensive mechanism of stinging when aggravated. There is a further risk if an individual has an allergy to bee stings which can cause difficulty in breathing and require immediate medical attention. If handling hives, protective equipment can be worn.

Regulatory considerations

Regulations differ across the states. Many states have beekeeping legislation and beekeeping codes of practise. This ensures disease and pest outbreaks are reported. State government websites have comprehensive information on these requirements. Important to note is the requirement to report certain diseases to state authorities which may vary between states.

Beekeeper registration is compulsory in most states. This fulfils market access requirements and pest and disease monitoring. A fee may be associated with registration.

A number of countries have importing regulations placed on Australian bee products. Further details can be found in Australia’s ‘Importing country requirements for bee products’. There are also regulations regarding the importing of queen bees.

Publications

Publications/ information products

Bee Friendly: A planting guide for European honeybees and Australian native pollinators– RIRDC Publication (2013)

Focus on Honeybee research and development – RIRDC Fat Sheet (2013)

Development of a pollen substitute meeting the nutritional needs of honeybees – RIRDC Project Summary (2013)

Establishing the disease status of the Asian honeybee in the Cairns region– RIRDC Publication (2013)

Pollination Aware –The Real Value of Pollination in Australia (2013) – RIRDC Fact Sheet

Use of a Sniffer Dog in the Detection of American Foulbrood in Beehives– RIRDC Publication (2013)

In-hive Fungal Biocontrol of Small Hive Beetle– RIRDC Publication (2012)

Preparing for Varroa – How susceptible are Australian honeybee stocks?– RIRDC Project Summary (2012)

Biosecurity Manual for the Honeybee Industry – Plant Health Australia Publication (2012)

Forestry plantations and honeybees – RIRDC Publication (2010)

Commercial beekeeping in Australia – RIRDC Publication (2007)

Field trials to test supplementary feeding strategies for commercial honeybees – RIRDC Publication (2007)

Fat bees, skinny bees: a manual on honeybee nutrition for beekeepers – RIRDC Publication (2005)

Techniques for the detection of adulterated honey – RIRDC Publication (2002)

Bee AgSkills: A practical guide to farm skills – available for purchase from NSW Department of Primary Industries Publication (2007)

Other resources

Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry QLD

Department of Agriculture and Food WA

Department of Biosecurity SA

Department of Environment and Primary Industries VIC

Department of Primary Industries NSW

Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment TAS

Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries NT

Plant Health Australia

Industry Bodies

The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council– peak industry body which protects and promotes the Australian honey bee industry

Australian Queen Bee Breeders Association– an industry association which seeks to develop supply of queen bees worldwide.

Federal Council of Australian Apiarist Association–a group of industry associations which seek to address producer’s needs.

Honey Packers and Marketers Association of Australia– an association which represents packers and marketers within the honeybee industry.

National Council of Crop Pollination Association– a nationwide association which addresses pollination issues.

There are state also a large number of state and amateur associations which can be easily found online.

Image Gallery

Bee hives alongside an almond orchard

Beekeepers examining frames, dressed in safety clothing

Honey being mechanically extracted from the frames

Queen bees on honeycomb

Using a 'Bee Blower' to remove bees from hives

Honey ready for eating