Meet the migrating beekeepers who cross state lines to pollinate crops
Every night while we sleep, thousands of bees criss-cross Australia on trucks as they try to meet the pollination needs of agricultural producers.
- Migratory beekeeping refers to beekeepers who travel with their hives to pollinate crops
- There are around 190 migratory beekeepers in Queensland who travel across Australia with their bees
- A 2007 study found that 35% of food in the world is the result of animal pollinators
Migratory beekeepers have thousands of bees that they deliver to farms, leaving them for weeks before packing up their hives and moving them to the next farm.
Some migratory beekeepers from Queensland will travel as far as Victoria to help pollinate crops, and as agricultural production increases there is a shortage of migratory bees and beekeepers.
Jo Martin, secretary of state for the Queensland Bee Keepers Association, said most people tend to think of a beekeeper as someone who has a few beehives in their garden.
“Most people don’t know that beekeeping is a big industry,” she said.
“Often when we sleep, beekeepers move truckloads of bees into the night.
“They will move between 100 and 150 hives at a time, from place to place.
“They will travel from southern Queensland all the way to far north Queensland and up to Victoria as different crops require pollination.”
Once the bees have settled, they then pollinate plants such as mango, avocado, blueberry, macadamia, and almond.
Pollination can take between four and six weeks, and Ms Martin said there are around 190 commercial beekeepers currently operating in Queensland.
“The beekeepers load the hives into the back of the truck around 4 p.m., and when the sun goes down, the bees go back to their hives,” she said.
“Once the bees are finished on a farm, they are usually trucked to a state forest or native bush to recover.”
The challenges facing the industry
One of the problems currently facing the beekeeping industry is that the demand exceeds the supply. As food production across Australia increases young people are choosing not to take up beekeeping as a career, something Ms Martin says the industry is trying to combat.
“In recent years there has been a big increase in agriculture in Australia, particularly with orchards,” she said.
“We need to start planning now because in a few years there will be an explosion in demand for migratory beekeepers.”
Fourth-generation migrant beekeeper Jacob Stevens from Warwick has around 1,500 mobile hives, with around 50,000 bees in each hive. Due to recent droughts, fires and climate change, he has noticed a decrease in the number of bees.
“We had severe droughts affecting most of the country and the bushfires burned beehives that would have been available for pollination,” Mr Stevens said.
“There is also the increase in pesticides and insecticides that we have to deal with. Over the past few years, the number of bees has fluctuated.”
Other challenges beekeepers face include access to Crown land, which Stevens said was imperative for the health of honey bees.
“At the moment, we are talking with the state government to make sure we have access to state forests beyond 2024, as we hope to get an extension until 2044.”
The director of Avocados Australia in North Queensland and a Tablelands farmer, Jim Kochi, also worried there might not be enough beekeepers to go around.
“Bees are very important to our business and agriculture across Australia, and there are not enough beekeepers to meet our needs,” he said.
“A lot of big agricultural companies have contact with beekeepers and sometimes small farms are missing out or we have to rely on amateur beekeepers.
Mr Stevens said the role of migratory bees was often underestimated.
“If you look at avocados, about 90% of crops are attributed to pollination by bees. It’s a pretty big impact,” he said.
“If it weren’t for the migrating bees, the production of fresh produce would drop and we would see prices skyrocket, so we really need to protect the bees we have.”