Eastern Australia is experiencing another drought. Droughts are normal and are becoming more frequent. This drought is one of the worst in several decades. 100% of New South Wales has been declared in a drought. Many farmers struggle through droughts, doing whatever it takes to survive until the rains come. Lots of awareness is raised about livestock and produce farmers. The obvious farmers running sheep, cattle, grain and vegetable farms. These make news headlines because farms that were once green pastures are now brown dustbowls. Such images invoke emotion and sell news. Beekeepers are farmers too. Beekeepers raise bees to produce food (honey), bees (for pollination and to sell to hobby beekeepers) and to sell the raw materials bees produce (wax and propolis). We are also hard hit by droughts. This article looks at how the drought affects beekeepers.
Depending on where you and your bees live, your sources have food will be greatly reduced and in some cases removed almost entirely. Trees and plants that usually provide abundant sources of pollen and nectar are too busy using their energy to survive. They don’t have the water or resources to produce flowers that bees so desperately rely on.
Like farmers of larger animals, when there are not enough natural sources of food on the ground beekeepers must feed their bees to prevent colonies from starving and dying. In good years bees can produce 30kg of honey per hive. During times of drought they may produce no honey and instead you have to pay to feed them the entire season.
Feeding bees produces several problems. First it is costly. Bees consume sugar water, a mixture of white sugar and water that they convert into energy when there is no nectar around. For a hobby beekeeper with 1 or 2 hives feeding bees 10kg of sugar syrup through a season is manageable. Multiply this by 50, 100 or 1000 hives and factor in the time it takes to buy the sugar, mix/dissolve it and then feed it to the bees and this becomes an expensive exercise.
Beekeepers must also ensure that they do not extract and sell honey that has been produced while feeding bees. This is to ensure the honey is not diluted with any residual syrup. So not only has the beekeeper spent additional money to keep their animals alive, they have also not produce any income from selling honey. This is almost the same scenario as a sheep/cattle farmer who has to buy hay to feed their stock and can then only sell their animals at heavily discounted prices because the animals are skinnier than usual which means there is less meat per animal to sell to consumers. Sometimes farmers also sell stock because they can’t afford to keep feeding and running the same number of animals. Beekeepers might not sell their bees but they may be forced to combine two weaker hives into one stronger hive to ensure the bees survival. This cuts the amount of hives a beekeeper has in half, reducing the amount of honey they can harvest (and revenue they can generate) in the good times by half as well.
Even when there are flowers for bees to forage on, with drought come higher temperatures. Bees keep their colony temperature inside a beehive at around 32 degrees Celsius. Once the outside temperature reaches about 30 degrees some of the forager bees (bees who bring nectar and pollen into the hive) change roles and become water collectors. They start bringing water back to the hive which is fanned and evaporated to help lower the temperature inside. When the temperature outside is approximately 35 degrees, all the forager bees stop gathering food and become water collectors.
What can we do?
The best thing we can do for bees is to plant bee friendly, drought tolerant plants. Having more food available an important first step.
Consider our impact on the environment. By reducing our individual carbon footprints we can collectively help slow global warming.
Finally, buy local honey. Help support your local beekeepers by purchasing directly from them.
Thanks for reading, enjoy your journey!