Pele Cannon

Farm: ‘Bilga’

Region: Urila, south east New South Wales

Commodity: Honey, beeswax and pollination

Farming area: 16 hectares, but the bees need access to 20,000 hectares of land

Email: Pele.Cannon@gmail.com

Phone: 02 6236 3294

 

In extreme heat periods, a lot of hives are lost to heat stress. Talking climate change—and the forecasts are that we’re going to get more extreme weather events, with more variability and a higher number of hot days—that’s going to become a real issue for beekeepers.

Increasing variability of rainfall and temperature are also going to make it a lot harder to find the right resources in an area that’s within reach. As flowering patterns change, beekeepers will have to change their patterns of hive movement in an effort to compensate for altered honey flows.

 Pele Cannon

 

See what Pele has to say about:

 

Beekeeping over 20,000 hectares

Our place is 16 hectares and it’s used as a base for the business. Bees need a variety of flowering trees and shrubs to collect both pollen and nectar. Because different trees produce different types of pollen, you need to give them access to variety for a healthy diet. This means you have to move the hives. On average we move our bees six or seven times a year.

We go wherever something is flowering within our range (within about 400 kilometres). We lease forestry sites, National Park and Wildlife Service sites, travelling stock reserves and private land. As beekeepers, we need access to about 20,000 hectares of land. About 70 per cent of our honey is produced from native flora, so we rely heavily on public forests and conserved areas.

Pele’s dad Des says: ‘At our peak, we had 720 hives, which produced on average 72 tonnes of honey and 1.2 tonnes of beeswax a year. Since we’ve scaled back, we can look after our 130–150 hives better. That means our production level has gone up to 20 tonnes of honey a year from those 130 hives.’

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How the region’s climate has changed in the last 30 years

Des says: ‘The climate at Urila is generally temperate. April used to be the wettest month, but in the 30 years that we’ve been living here, April and May are now our driest months. Now November and January are the wettest two months. Our average rainfall is about 620 mm a year.

Our seasons are coming a little bit earlier, and are little bit shorter. The summers are definitely hotter.’

Pele checking a honey rack

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Extreme heat stressing bees and the beekeeping industry

Bees won’t fly to find food unless the air temperature is at least 14°C, so we look for temperate locations for our hives.

When the temperature gets over 38°C, bees start to become heat stressed and they have trouble managing the temperature inside the hive. The bees start collecting water instead of nectar.

Over 43°C, they start to have really big problems in controlling the temperature inside the hive; the honeycomb starts melting and the honey runs onto the ground.

In extreme heat periods, a lot of hives are lost to heat stress after being subjected to so many days of prolonged extreme temperature. If you start talking about climate change—and the forecasts are that we’re going to get more extreme weather events with more variability and a higher number of hot days—then that’s going to become a real issue for the industry.

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How climate change reduces nectar and pollen availability

Increasing variability of rainfall and temperature are going to make it a lot harder to find the right resources in an area that’s within reach. As flowering patterns change, beekeepers will have to change their patterns of hive movement in an effort to compensate for altered honey flows [a honey flow is a good source of nectar and favourable weather].

Now that climate change is having more of an effect on rainfall, we are finding it more and more difficult to find areas that have had enough rain for flowers to bud. Reduced rainfall can also mean that the trees, although they have flowers, don’t have much nectar.

Des says: ‘In our experience we’re seeing honey flows becoming more irregular and unreliable. For example, honey-making from certain plants used to last two and a half months, but now it’s down to about seven weeks.’

Decreasing reliability of honey flows is going to reduce the profitability of making honey, so there won’t be as many beekeepers around.

Another issue from climate change—and less moisture—is that we think the trees aren’t producing the same level of proteins in the pollen as they did before.

Des Cannon points out flowering trees to Pele on their farm

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Droughts threatening normal crop pollination in Australia

Most of the pollination of crops in Australia is done by wild honeybees, and the single most important factor for the survival of a wild honeybee colony is the availability of water.

Des says: ‘In places like Batlow, where they grow apples, and in Young, where they grow cherries—those areas traditionally did not hire beekeepers to do pollination because they had enough wild hives to provide the pollination they needed.

But in the last 10–15 years, both of those areas have needed pollination services from beekeepers because wild hives are disappearing. That’s largely an effect of the drought. As the drought’s become more severe, the number of wild hives in the environment is dropping.

In past times pollination has been about 15% of our income, honey about 80%, and beeswax about 5%. Currently, pollination has been about 30%, honey about 66%, and wax 3%. This is because we reduced our hive numbers and have a smaller focus on honey.’

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Dealing with climate extremes in traditional and new ways

Des says: ‘15 years ago we had a very, very cold winter here and I realised the bees were not going to get through the winter. We decided to shift them from here to Bourke, to put them on to wild heather for four weeks. That meant taking all the bees 850 kilometres north, and it was quite successful.

'A big failure we had was taking bees to a red stringybark [Eucalyptus macrorhyncha] flowering at Tumut. We felt we’d had adequate rainfall, but then there was extremely hot weather and the flowering event never happened. The buds shrivelled up on the trees and never opened. The bees sat there under heat stress, not getting any food, and we still had to get them ready for winter.’

Moving the bees is the traditional method of dealing with climate problems in an area. But we’ve worked hard to understand more about how the bees need to feed, so we’ve become importers of a feed supplement that gets the bees strong.

That’s a tool that we’re using to combat climate variability, because at least the bees will be strong if we find a small supply of nectar or pollen—they’ll make the most of it that they can.

Des, Pele and Jenan Cannon

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Relying on rainfall this year to produce flowers for next year

Basically, we need to know what is going to flower where. We produce 70 per cent of our honey from native flora, particularly eucalypts, and those eucalypts take anything from six weeks to two years to set their flower. Once they start setting their bud, it might be two years before they flower.

So the rainfall this year often determines what happens with flowering next year. You still have to go and look at the site for yourself, though. Traditionally, beekeepers have dealt with drought, floods, and climate by shifting their bees to an area where there’s something’s going to flower. When that’s finished, you shift your bees somewhere else.

Des says: ‘Rains have been a small, negative effect on income this year [2010]. Rain has stopped the bees from using the extra ground flora that was available. The bees were making honey for two or three days, then eating it for the next two or three days. A lot of hives were lost in the floods, particularly in northern New South Wales and Queensland, but also in southern New South Wales. At least 2000 hives have been lost in the north, which has a major impact on those beekeepers.

Long-term, the high rainfall will be of benefit, as trees (particularly eucalypts) will be stimulated to flower. The high humidity has also meant that the Small Hive Beetle [Aethina tumida] has been having a greater negative effect on beehives.’

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Using rainfall and temperature forecasts to plan where to put bees

The Bureau of Meteorology’s (BOM) rainfall forecasts and records are really important to us—and it’s important that the regional ones are accurate. Temperature records and forecasts are also crucial for deciding where to take the bees and whether we think the trees are going to produce nectar. We also monitor the weather conditions for bees that way.

We also subscribe to BOM’s rainfall record service so that we can monitor rainfall elsewhere. That’s particularly important when you’re looking at the rainfall over public land. On public land, you don’t have access to a farmer to ask what the rainfall’s been on his land, so you have to use information that’s available on the Internet to help you. We’re starting to use that more and more.

As climate variability increases, having good forecasting tools will make it a lot easier for beekeepers.

 

Pele discuses how climate affects siting of hives

 

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How pollination business changes with drier times

Because the most important factor for wild honeybees is availability of water, drier times are threatening wild hives. Because of this and the massive number of pollination-dependent crops, managed pollination has to fill that need.

Farmers will demand more of beekeepers in terms of provision of pollination services as well, and beekeepers may have to change their focus from honey production. For example, there has been a massive expansion of almond orchards which are 100 per cent reliant on honeybees for pollination. So we have seen a mass migration of beekeepers in August to pollinate the almonds.

Is that going to become the norm? Are beekeepers going to start focusing on providing a pollination service? If they are going to do that, then they have to manage their hives well enough to do that.

As well, because climate change might be affecting the level of protein the bees get, that changes the honeybee’s nutrition and therefore the viability of the business. Some beekeepers are starting to use supplemental feeding of pollen and/or pollen substitutes, and some beekeepers may turn more to paid pollination to cover the gap in honey production.

Used honey racks at Urilga

 

Interview date: 23 July 2010

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Contact Pele Cannon

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