MASSIVE bee deaths, totalling more than 80,000 hives, have been reported following almond pollination in California, with a further 400,000 hives affected.
Reports suggest about 60 per cent of the 1.7 million hives placed among the almonds were affected by “bee-friendly” pesticides.
The news of pesticide damage hits hard for the Australian apiary industry which totals less than 450,000 hives across the country, with NSW totalling some 260,000 hives.
Central West beekeeper and Crop Pollinators Association president Bryn Jones, together with his father Warren, have been fighting the same battle against pesticides.
“There has been a significant loss of hives from the Warren, Gin Gin and Boggabri areas in what is believed to be spray drift,” Bryn said.
Batch-mixing of chemicals, which is believed to have happened in California, is common practice in Australian agriculture according to Warren Jones.
“When the bees start dying, there is a big problem in the environment,” he said.
Warren spent 34 years as an advisory officer to the NSW Department of Agriculture, specialising in bee diseases, crop pollination and pesticides and said new systemic pesticides were creating the “perfect storm”.
“Particularly the neonicotinoids group which also carry warnings not to use treated crop material for grazing or to be fed to other livestock,” he said.
“Nearly all seeds are coated with a dressing, usually neonicotinoids which are systemic, then you go and add a fungicide spray which is also systemic and then comes the foliar spray, also systemic.”
“The combination of these chemicals can increase the toxicity of the chemicals within the plant by more than 1000 per cent.”
“It also means that the maximum residue level (MRL) management of our food chain for human protection needs looking at.”
Systemic chemicals are soluble enough to be absorbed into the plant, creating an “unknown” situation within the plant, fruit, nut or vegetable altering their MRL readings.
“This process is called synergism – when two or more chemicals, which may be compatible, mix in the plant,” he said.
“There is little known work done in this area within plants.”
“There has been a slow change from pest control to plant protection with just about everything and every seed now being treated just in case a pest might turn up, whereas before we had to justify the chemical to use it.”
The Jones family, who have been confronted with multiple chemical incidences losing up to 600 hives each time, said it’s often insufficient or misleading labelling on chemicals that can be to blame but not solely.
“Fiprinol, for example, cannot be applied 28 days prior to flowering on most labels.
“This only addresses bee deaths by contact to the chemical applied to the plant but for a further 65 plus days there is high systemic activity in the pollen and nectar of that flower,” Bryn said.
“And the Fiprinol breaks down into four phototypes – one of them being more toxic by more than 10 times.”
Together Bryn and Warren run almost 1500 hives for pollination to both agriculture and horticulture industries, but said the increased use in chemicals for “protection” rather than “pest control” was becoming a big risk to their operation and environment.
“As beekeeper pollinators we were never worried about seed treatments because, previously, the chemicals used didn’t translocate throughout the whole plant which means the chemicals used were not systemic,” Warren said.
“Our gripe is not with the farmers using chemicals or the people selling the chemicals, it’s with the system that doesn’t give enough information and fails to take any accountability if something goes wrong.
“We understand that farmers are just trying to produce crops and fibre for Australia and the rest of the world- and so are we.
“Honey bees go hand-in-hand with crops from canola and lucerne to vegetables, fruits and nuts, and has even been shown to increase yield in cotton crops.”
The Joneses hope a Senate inquiry into the industry will have more impact than the last and include a review into neonicotinoid use.
It’s the Senate’s second look at apiculture in six years however recommendations, including labelling requirements, from the last inquiry were largely ignored, according to the Jones’.
“There were about 25 recommendations made in the More than Honey report after the last inquiry and there were not many taken up including making chemical labels state their effect on bees,” Warren said.
Bryn said they were hoping to have chemical labels enforced.
The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), responsible for chemical approvals and setting labelling requirements, released a report in February this year stating the authority would work to “strengthen the existing label statement regarding agricultural chemicals and their impact on bees”.
But there is more to be done, according to the Joneses.
“Knowledge and training of all concerned so that the correct and required management can be applied is paramount,” Bryn said.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries also made a submission to the inquiry with director general Scott Hansen naming a lack of face-to-face training and specialised trainees were among challenges facing the industry.
Public consultation on the Future of the Beekeeping and Pollination Services inquiry ended this week, attracting 79 submissions from corporations and individual beekeepers from across the country. The Senate committee’s findings will be handed down on June 16.