Five from the hive: Highlights from the past five years of the honey bee industry 

28.05.20

As the sun sets on the 2014-15 to 2018-19 Five Year Research, Development & Extension Plan, the Honey Bee & Pollination Program has taken a moment to pause on reflect on a challenging but prosperous five years for the industry.

For many, the past five years have been some of the more challenging on record, culminating with the unprecedented devastation caused by the 2019-20 bushfires. But despite the trying circumstances, Dr Doug Somerville, chair of the AgriFutures Australia Honey Bee & Pollination Advisory Panel, says that it was an era that will be reflected on as a roaring success for the industry.

“We have achieved some tremendous things over the past five years. Our role is to secure a productive, sustainable and more profitable Australian beekeeping industry and by strategically investing in research that focuses on all three of these core elements we have positioned our industry well as we head into a new Strategic Plan,” said Dr Somerville.

Reflecting on the last five years, Dr Somerville has identified five highlights; each having laid the foundations for a prosperous future for the industry.

Elevation of Australian honey as a superfood

Honey has been a staple of breakfast tables and kitchens for decades. For years it played an unsung, unglamorous role as a natural and delicious sweetener for everything from porridge, to tea and stir-frys.

But everything changed when the medicinal properties of honey began to elevate the product into a new sphere of health food category.

Initially, this evolution was led by research showing that New Zealand manuka honey is a potent killer of many bacterial pathogens. But in 2019 AgriFutures Australia funded-research led by the University of Technology, Sydney’s Professor Liz Harry and Dr Nural Cokcetin, discovered that specific chemical components relating to antibacterial activity of several Australian Leptospermum honeys was similar to that of its Manuka counterpart in New Zealand.

“If we can successfully elevate Australian honey into the superfood category it will be a major boon for the profitability of our industry. With no trade barriers for foreign honey, the health benefits of our honey ensures we have a level of differentiation for the 70% of Australian consumers who do not consider Australian-made as a key purchase consideration. It will enable us to charge a premium, leading to a more profitable industry.”

Moving towards a database of Australian honeys

In 2018, the industry was challenged by inaccurate media reports claiming that one in five Australian honey samples was adulterated. The misinformation was driven mostly by the fact the databases of honey used for comparison contained very few samples of Australian honey. Around 70% of Australian honey is produced from native plants and our unique flora means that our honey is just as unique.

Since those inaccurate reports, the industry has moved forward with plans to establish a database of Australian honeys based on a project undertaken by Jamie Ayton from the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI).

According to Dr Somerville, the findings from the NSW DPI project are a guiding light for the industry.

“The findings from the NSW DPI report are clear and set us on the right trajectory to ensure that our honey is accurately tested. As recommended by the report, we will progress with the establishment of an Australian honey standard and database of Australian honeys that reflects the true variability in the chemical composition and variability of Australian honeys.”

“Australian beekeepers are proud of their honey, it’s some of the most pure in the world. With this work underway we will be providing them with the support they need to stand up against future misinformation,” said Dr Somerville.

Beekeeper attending to hives in field

Preventing pest incursions

While the lack of pests in Australia such as the varroa mite has led to a prosperous and clean industry, this could change at any moment.

So how do we ensure we are dedicating enough resources to defending against pests which we know would be destructive, such as the varroa mite, and finding out more about pests, where the impact may be less clear?

The answer is of course in research and a clear example of this is when Dr Ben Oldroyd from the University of Sydney travelled to Africa to conduct a risk assessment for the large African hive (LAHB) beetle.

Throughout the fieldwork in South Africa, it was deduced that although LAHB could cause significant damage in Australia, it was unlikely that it would be as big of a threat as small hive beetle. This research continues to help the industry manage limited resources appropriately.

Combating chalkbrood

Over the past five years, the industry has taken steps to combat chalkbrood through the analysis of gut bacteria in healthy bees.

A series of projects have uncovered a rich diversity of bacterial species inhabiting the gut of healthy bees, with a proportion of bacteria showing strong antifungal activity against the chalkbrood pathogen.

Dr Somerville believes that this research has the power to position the Australian Honey Bee industry as a leader in combating chalkbrood in bees.

“As with all science, this research is ongoing and the next phase will be to determine the feasibility of the commercialisation of Australian native bee gut bacteria as a probiotic.

“We’re very excited to see where that research leads us.”

Diversification

Another highlight from the previous five years has been uncovering the potential economic benefits the Australian beekeeping industry could receive through diversification into the harvest and selling of propolis.

According to research undertaken by AgEconPlus, beekeepers could expect to earn an extra $1,400 a year through propolis production.

“There’s still a way to go before we can turn propolis into a viable market here in Australia, but what is most exciting is the new areas of diversification that are opening up around our industry, which helps us ensure the future strength and viability of the industry.

“Diversification is one of the inherent strengths of our industry. Our beekeepers can seamlessly move from honey products to pollination and now even to propolis production. Building on this, we can even start using the unique flora we use to our advantage, including the way we differentiate and market our products. While the market is only becoming more fragmented, we are the best placed industry to turn fragmentation into an opportunity.

Looking ahead: A new strategic plan

“We are currently finalising our next Strategic Plan. There will be no radical shifts in strategy, and we see this plan as an extension of the previous five year plan. We have made giant strides towards improving bee productivity, we continue to explore new diversification opportunities and we double down on the prevention of pest incursions,” said Dr Somerville.

If there is one thing the past five years has shown, it’s that the Australian honey bee and pollination industry is one of the most adaptive and resilient industries in Australia. All 25,093 registered beekeepers in Australia have contributed to the growth and success of the industry. By diverting research resources to address external issues like pest incursions, misinformation and food trends, the industry has positioned itself strongly for growth and prosperity in 2020 and beyond.

For more information on the AgriFutures Honey Bee and Pollination Program, and to register to receive the new Strategic Plan, which plots the course for the next five years head to agrifutures.com.au/honey-bee-pollination

Media enquiries:
Sam Cox
Cox Inall Communications
0401 464 664