Honey Prices To Skyrocket As Bees, Flowers Die In Drought
This could be "the worst season on record" for Australian honey, with beekeepers saying climate change has killed off their hives and the flowers they rely on.
Some beekeepers are reporting an 80 percent drop in production, amid predictions prices could jump 10 percent or more in coming weeks.
"The persistence of this drought over several honey seasons is making it hard for bees and beekeepers in turn," Ben McKee, chief operating officer of Hive + Wellness, told 10 daily.
"The trees don't flower, and when they do, they don't produce anywhere near the nectar they usually would."
Hive + Wellness is the parent company for popular honey brand Capilano, and McKee is a fifth-generation beekeeper. He said this could be the worst season for Australian honey on record, with production down at least 30 percent nationally, and far higher in some parts of northern NSW and southern Queensland.
"Most of our honey comes from eucalypts, and most of them are on flowering patterns of every one to two years," McKee explained.
"The trees are dying from a lack of rain, and the stress on trees is a lot worse. Last year was a bad honey production year, and this year is considerably worse. We're concerned about having a honey industry getting us through to the next season in spring."
Just as livestock and crop farmers are battling the historic drought, so too are the beekeepers. McKee called them "the forgotten farmers", with the headlines often focusing on the big cattle and field farmers -- but bees, besides producing delicious honey, also play a crucial role in pollinating other plants.
While honey suppliers, like most industries, hold stocks of inventory to protect against unexpected supply issues, McKee said the bulk of honey stocks had been depleted after several years of low production. He warned that this summer could see supply interruptions and rising prices at supermarkets.
Jacob Stevens, a fourth-generation beekeeper from Warwick in south-east QLD, said he knew some farms which were looking at an 80 percent drop in production from last year -- which, itself, had already been seen as a particularly poor year for honey.
"Our biggest problem is the drought. We haven't had normal seasons for quite a lot of years, with prolonged dry weather and above average temperatures. That affects the trees, what's flowering, and what's available to collect," he told 10 daily.
"We're lucky in that bushfires aren't a big thing for us particularly, but some people are shifting their bees from one location to try to get out in front of a bushfire. That's very taxing on bees and beekeepers."
Stevens' family has been in the bee business since the 1950s, and he claimed 2019 is "up there with some of the very hardest seasons ever."
"It doesn't get much worse than this. Honey production will be very limited," he said sadly.
"If we don't have good rainfall, soon, in key areas, this will go on for a very long time."
Stevens said beekeepers -- some operating over 1000 hives, each holding tens of thousands of bees -- are being forced into other, less lucrative industries just to turn some profit.
For instance, he said some of his hives had been taken from near the QLD-NSW border to Victoria, to pollinate avocado, macadamia and blueberry crops for other farmers.
"We've had to do that this year on a scale we'd never done before. The financial returns aren't enough, but it's cash flow to keep your business operating," Stevens said.
"It is a challenge at times, last week we travelled 2500 kilometres. It's a big effort, quite strenuous, but you've got to go and chase something to keep the bees alive."
McKee said some beekeepers are being forced to hand-feed their bees a sugar solution just to keep them alive. It's expensive and time-consuming, but just like cattle or sheep farmers, beekeepers need to maintain their animals so they will have something to work with when conditions finally improve.
"It's too expensive to just start again. Keepers are investing in moving bees to better areas or supplementary feeding so they remain alive. It's keepers moving their bees from QLD to Victoria for better conditions," he said.
McKee said prices were already slowly increasing, but like other livestock and agricultural producers, he feared what would happen if the drought did not ease.
"We've been calling our beekeepers 'the forgotten farmers'. It's a small industry but it has a big impact. Bees are really important to pollination and industry, it's really the cornerstone of agriculture in Australia," he said.
"While the industry itself isn't a billion dollar industry, we support those billion dollar industries."
Stevens said the best thing shoppers could do to directly help beekeepers was to buy 100 percent Australian honey, not imported brands -- whether that's at supermarkets, farmers' markets, or from beekeepers directly.
"We cant afford to lose this industry. We can't afford to neglect what these guys do," McKee said.