An Australian queen bee shortage is causing a pollination deficiency for the nation’s crops. This is leaving Australian beekeepers struggling to rebuild hives after recent natural disasters and meet the rising demands in crop pollination.
In Australia, roughly one-third of the crops depend on bees for pollination.
But the country is facing a desperate challenge, with a shortage of bees and worse—a shortage of queen bees. There is a frantic need to breed more queens so colonies can be established in the North West.
The queen bee is the heart of the hive, the center of every beehive around which all life unfolds. She is the only bee, out of the tens of thousands of bees in a hive, that is able to lay fertilized eggs. Young vibrant queen bees easily lay up to 2,000 eggs in a day, which can add up to over a million eggs in her lifetime. But as she ages, her fertility declines.
This 2:09-minute video by ABC News (Australia) shows some of the recovery in NSW from the recent bushfire devastation:
Worker bees and queens are all female bees, born from fertilized eggs. This means they receive the queen bee’s genes and the genes of a drone from a different hive. In contrast, the male bee, or drone, is hatched from an unfertilized egg and only has the queen bee’s genes.
In several parts of Australia in recent years, harsh climate conditions and natural disasters have burnt and flooded many areas where beehives were located and killed off many bees as well as their feeding habitats.
This 2:19-minute video by ABC News (Australia) shows how Victoria's bushfire disaster has affected bee populations:
Demand for pollination and beehives has escalated but the number of commercial queen bee breeders in Australia has dwindled over the last two decades. This causes some beekeepers a struggle to find new queens.
Trevor Weatherhead is Chair of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council. He says more beekeepers need to enter the queen bee breeding business, that there is a real need for this service.
As he explains, young queens need to replace older queens when they start to fail, to keep hives viable and operating full throttle. If there are insufficient young queen bees, honey production will decline. This is also the only way for beekeepers to be able to expand their hive count.
According to Joshua Kennett, President of the South Australian Apiarist Association, many beekeepers that lost their hives in last year’s bushfires are seeking to re-establish them and are looking for queen bees, but these are hard to find.
Queen bee breeding is a bit of a dying art, according to Riverland apiarist Kerry Chambers. She recently began rearing queen bees to build her business and to support other beekeepers. Very few people rear queen bees full time.
Her initial experience with grafting queens was enough to make her a nervous wreck, and she says a firm hand and keen eyesight are needed. Grafting is the biggest challenge, where you must pull out a frame filled with day-old larvae and use a special scooper tool to get the little larvae out without harming them and put them in your prepared queen cup.
She does see the many benefits to rearing queens, though, especially how it can help expand hives quickly. One just takes a couple of frames from an existing hive and places them in a new hive along with a young queen. A new colony is created instantly that grows and expands.
There is a certain peace-of-mind in knowing that should anything happen to her established hives she has access to new queen bees, so there wouldn't be a loss of productivity. This also helps other beekeepers facing these challenges.
There is a very precise methodology to queen raising, according to Mr. Weatherhead, who has reared queens for 24 years. He thinks the constraints on time and the finicky nature of the work to graft bees may be the reason many people do not want to breed queens. It’s a meticulous process and certain steps must be undertaken on certain days, no matter what else is going on. It requires dedication.
The almond tree pollination business of Australia is second only to the almond tree pollination business of California, USA. In 2020, it is reported that an estimated 227,000 beehives, with over 9 billion bees, were trucked to Victoria to pollinate almond trees. It is big business for everyone, including beekeepers.
This is putting huge pressure on beekeepers and even more so on the bees themselves, since they are the ones that must do the pollinating. The need for newly planted fruit and nut trees to be pollinated for food production countrywide is causing beekeepers pressure to expand their hive counts.
Mr. Kennett says this means beekeepers are focusing on fast increases in their hive numbers, and that more queens are being used now than ever before as older queens are changed out for younger ones, to make sure the queens in each hive are the best that can be had. He believes hives are being pushed more than they used to be even 15 years ago, and it is all leading to changing beekeeping practices since beehives must be very strong for pollination.