Honey industry struggles

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Nilesh Ravindra Kumar is the president of the Fiji Beekeepers Association. Picture:ABC Rural: Lucy Cooper

A boom in beekeeping in the Pacific has helped improve yield and quality for more than 30 per cent of the country’s pollination-dependent crops, but it comes at an inopportune time as Fiji grapples with a varroa mite invasion and adverse weather events.

It has presented beekeepers in the Pacific nation with a dilemma.

There is an untapped potential to export high-value, niche-marketed honey products, and Australian researchers are working to create new market opportunities for Fijian honey abroad. But the Pacific’s bees are hungry and struggling with pests.

“Basically, it’s like going into someone’s house and there’s no food in the pantry,” Cooper Schouten from Southern Cross University said.

Dr Schouten is a project leader for the Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods research group, currently overseeing a four-year, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research apiculture project in Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Hungry bees are a challenge the industry faces not just across the Pacific, but also in Australia.

“We have increasing rainfall events that wash nectar away. We’ve got floods, droughts, fires, cyclones,” Dr Schouten said.

“We need practical skills and research to inform decision-making to better respond to those climate-changing environments.”

Supplement-feeding bees

Fijian Beekeeping Association president Nilesh Ravindra Kumar said intense rainfall had washed pollen away, which had resulted in bees left without a food source.

“We need to do supplement feed, but at the moment all we are doing in Fiji is raw sugar,” he said.

“We are giving them sugar, which is energy, but what about their protein? Their nutrition?

“Normally, the adverse weather in the past was not that bad and bees were able to manage with no supplement feed.

“But now with climate change and the adverse weather we have to educate the farmers in that they now need to.”

Lessons from across the Pacific

Dr Schouten said in Australia and Fiji, there were a lot of bee enthusiasts but not necessarily people who were keeping bees.

The difference, he said, were those who treated bees like any other working farm animal and tended to their needs, and others who did not.

It was a knowledge gap he hoped both countries could begin to fill.

“These guys [the bees] are just like any other type of livestock. You have to pay attention to pests and disease, their nutrition, technologies, their genetics, the markets,” he said.

“There are so many things that are required of a beekeeper to make sure the bees are doing OK, in order for them to be healthy, happy, and productive.”

In 2018, the most serious pest for European honey bees — the varroa mite — entered Fiji.

“When it happened in Fiji, the news was not broken that fast, and biosecurity was trying to control or eradicate it,” Mr Kumar said.

“But now it has gotten out of hand and it’s now on the farmers to manage.

“I lost 10 per cent of my honey production, so I lost 10 per cent of my income.”

Mr Kumar said beekeepers in Fiji were working to manage the pest as eradication was no longer possible. With the arrival of varroa mite in Australia, Fijian beekeepers had turned to help Australia with its management of the catastrophic pest.

“Some of the techniques that we are learning we are sharing with Australia,” Mr Kumar said.

“But vice versa we also learn from Australia and our Pacific neighbours — New Zealand who experienced varroa mite 20 years ago.”

New products

While Fiji and the Pacific continue to struggle with hungry and sick bees, there is hope.

“We are seeing a lot of growth in production and numbers of hives, but importantly in people’s capabilities, people’s skills, people’s enthusiasm,” Dr Schouten said.

Dr Schouten hoped the Pacific would be able to leverage its unique tropical climate to offer new honey products to the market.

“People are producing valueadded products like beeswax, lip balms, candles, soap, surf wax,” he said.

“You can create vanilla honey, comb honey. It can be very specific floral resources.

“We are researching to find out if there is an opportunity there to get a mono-floral-type honey, for example off coffee nectar, or off noni honey, so lots of potential for growth.”

• LUCY COOPER is a rural reporter based in Townsville. Hailing from Tasmania, Lucy studied Ag Business at UTAS, and upon discovering she could talk until the cows came home, she knew she was destined for the ABC. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.

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