BOFFINS are buzzing about new research that could create thousands, if not millions, of new jobs for Australians as an expected downturn threatens the international workforce.
A $10 million research program has been launched by Research Development Corporation Horticulture Innovation Australia and Western Sydney University to investigate native stingless not only as replacement pollinators for fruit and vegetable growers, but as pollination productivity improvers in their own right.
Pollination of valuable horticulture crops could cop a serious blow, if as expected the deadly varroa mite completes its global march of destruction against hard working European honey bees.
Ongoing research indicates stingless bees can be more effective pollinators than honey bees. They are employed in hives by commercial pollination providers for horticulture producers across the country.
Introduced feral honey bees provide a free service for a significant amount of Australian produce. They pollinate an estimated 50 per cent to 70pc of crops in fruiting trees like cherries, apples and pears as well lucerne and canola.
Other pollination providers complete the rest of the task - such as commercially hived European honey bees, native bee species and insects including butterflies, beetles, flies, moths, and ants.
Hort Innovation wants to establish how fruit, nut, vegetable and cut flower growers can employ the latent local workforce in Australia’s 12 stingless bee species.
Unlike nearly all of Australia 1500 native species who lead solitary lives, stingless bees live in colonies like the European honey bee.
Varroa mite has had catastrophic impacts on honey bee numbers on every continent bar Australia, decimating populations as it feeds on the blood of feral and hived honey bees and their larvae, transmitting deadly diseases.
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It originated in north Asia in the 1950s and spread to Europe, Africa, Asia and the U.S. And now, experts agree, it is inevitably headed our way.
When New Zealand suffered its invasion in 2008 the feral honey bee population fell 90pc.
Varroa mite has reached Papua New Guinea, just a few bumbling island hops away from Australia for an adventurous bee.
Western Sydney University Professor James Cook is endeavouring to discover if stingless bees can aid open air and glasshouse production.
“The major glasshouse crops are tomoatoes, capscisum and egglpants and honey bees are not great pollinators for these crops,” said Prof. Cook, who is leads Western Sydney’s Plants, Animals and Interactions research division, where the new was National Vegetable Protected Cropping Centre was opened last month.
Many questions need to be answered before stingless bees are used as a significant pollinator, including the basic question of how effective stingless bees are at transferring pollen from plant to plant.
One thing that is not in doubt is stingless bees’ eponymous benefit in a glasshouse environment, so workers are not worried by painful pricks from European bees.
Porf. Cook said bees use sunlight in their navigation systems. Light filtered through glasshouses may alter the spectrum of sunlight, which could be disorienting for the bees.
Colonies of stingless bee may potentially need to be rotated between environments, to provide a varied diet of nectar and pollen which is not available in monoculture glasshouse production.
In outdoor cropping, Queensland growers are latching onto the value of stingless bees for their avocado and macadamia crops. Hives are selling for $500 or more, if you can find them.
Prof. Cook said most tropical fruits like mango, lychee, avocado as well as apples, cucumbers and pumpkins, among others, will be a focus for stingless bee research.
“This research has the potential to change the way we view pollination in Australia. It is already clear managed stingless bees may have wide but underdeveloped potential for crop pollination,” Prof. Cook said.
“Investigating the effectiveness of stingless bee pollination and its impact on crop set, yield and quality will be the next steps. For the most promising crop and bee combinations, we will then conduct more detailed studies to determine best ways to deploy managed hives within the target crop.”
Hort Innovation general manager research marketing and investment David Moore said investment was driven in part by the need to find alternate pollination services as the varroa threat grows.
“This is the first project based at Western Sydney facility. It’s really looking to protect the industry,” Mr Moore said.
“The potential for varroa mite to enter the country is very real. All our neighbours have it and some experts say it is only a matter of time.”