Something’s Abuzz

Australia’s Honey Industry

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” is boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s most famous catchphrase. With their gossamer wings, distinctive buzzing noise, and fierce determination to protect the hive, bees have been both fascinating and stinging people for thousands of years. And according to the Department of Agriculture, the Australian honey and bee products industry is worth approximately $90 million per year.

Australia has around 10,000 registered beekeepers, 1,700 of which are commercial apiarists with over 50 hives, while the remainder are part-time and hobbyist apiarists. Bees were once considered to be ‘little servants of God’ – and it was unlucky to kill one – but today bees have some deadly enemies.

While the Australian honey industry maintains stringent farming and quarantine standards to keep out foreign pests, these pests are not the only threat to bee colonies. Last year’s erratic weather patterns have given the honey industry a painful sting this year, and overall production levels are down. For a historic industry that is famous for producing some of the world’s finest honey, including sugarbag honey made by native bees, business is not very sweet at the moment.

Australia is home to over 1,500 species of native bees in a stunning kaleidoscope of colours from red, orange, and metallic green to black with blue bands. Some of these species have fat, furry bodies while others are sleek and shiny. Australia’s largest native bee is the Great Carpenter bee at 24 millimetres long, and the smallest is the Cape York Quasihesma bee. At a tiny 2 millimetres long, the Quasihesma bee is not much larger than a pinhead. Only ten of Australia’s native bees are stingless social bees, building hives with a hierarchy lead by a queen bee with male drones and sterile female workers. The rest are solitary species, who only collect enough nectar to feed their young and do not store honey.

While a hive of social native bees will only produce about one litre of honey per year (a small amount compared to their introduced counterpart the European honey bee), sugarbag honey is a niche product that has a unique Australian flavour. Native bees have also proved to be successful pollinators of domestic and commercial crops.

Australia’s major commercial species for honey production is the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), recognisable by its characteristic yellow and dark brown bands. Samuel Marsden first introduced the European Honey Bee to Australia in 1810, importing a number of colonies from England. These colonies failed to establish and died out, but a second introduction of bees in 1822 to the mainland was successful. To be sure, the honey making process is one of nature’s greatest marvels. The worker bees fly around collecting nectar or pollen from flowers to be stored in a honey sac inside their body. There is a valve in the honey sac that allows a portion of the gathered nectar or pollen to pass through to the digestive stomach of the bee to be turned into energy. Before her honey sac is full, a worker bee may visit a staggering 1,500 flowers.

A worker bee returns to the hive once her honey sac is full and becomes heavy. Before entering the hive, the guard bees will check her in. The guard bees protect the hive from predators and bees from other colonies. Once inside, the worker bee will pass the collected nectar or pollen to another bee before flying off in search of more. The worker bees in the hive create honey by reducing the moisture content of the nectar or pollen to around 16.5 per cent by passing it through their mouths from bee to bee in a process known as ripening. During the ripening process, the nectar or pollen sugars change from sucrose to glucose, fructose, and maltose. The worker bees then deposit the honey into hexagonal beeswax cells and finish by capping the honey with a thin layer of beeswax. The bees will feed on some of this honey and use it to make bee bread to feed their newborns by mixing it with pollen.

The colour, flavour and properties of honey can vary greatly depending on what flowers the worker bees have been visiting. Bees gathering pollen from the Red Stringy Bark tree produce honey that never crystallises and has a rich, bold flavour. Yellow Box honey made from the pollen of the Yellow Box tree is a popular honey with a mildly sweet taste and a light amber colour. Manuka honey made from Tea tree or Jelly Bush pollen has been scientifically proven by Sydney University’s School of Molecular and Microbial Sciences to have potent antibacterial properties. Manuka honey was effective in killing nearly every kind of bacteria it was exposed to during testing – even antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Manuka honey is excellent for dressing wounds and soothing sore throats. Organic honey is another highly prized variety of honey. Producing organic honey is a viable commercial venture in Australia since the country has remained free from most major bee pests. Australia is also home to thousands of acres of pristine forest and bushland areas that are perfect for organic beekeeping on a commercial scale.

European honey bees produce far more honey that what is necessary for their survival. Over ten frames or supers of honeycomb may be within a commercial hive. Each super is around 1 to 1.5 inches thick. Honey is ready to be harvested once the bees have capped almost every beeswax cell within a super. The majority of harvested honeycomb that is processed for bottling will have the chewy comb removed, although some is sold with the comb intact. To process honey for bottling, the waxy caps are shaved off both sides of the honeycomb supers using heated knives, revealing the honey stored inside the cells. The supers are then placed inside an extractor, which is a machine that spins around until all the honey has been thrown out of the cells. The honey drips down the walls of the extractor and collects at the bottom. Once it has reached a certain level, the gradually rising honey is drained into a strainer to be filtered through fine mesh nylon. At this stage, the honey still contains tiny particles of pollen and beeswax. This is as far as the extracting process goes for raw honey. Many commercial operations will heat the honey slightly at this point, thinning it to be strained through even finer filters that will remove any remaining traces of pollen or beeswax.

If provoked, European honey bees will give a nasty sting, but they are affected by a number of pests including Asian bees, Braula flies, Wax moths, Small hive beetles, and Tracheal mites. Australia is currently free from some of the major bee pests like the Tropilaelaps mite, but the leading biosecurity threat for the honey industry is the Varroa mite. This bloodsucking parasite has decimated bee populations around the world, and the Department of Agriculture has a strategic plan in place to prevent the same from happening here with early detection being vital.

The threat of the Varroa mite is not the only worry for Australian beekeepers. This year is shaping up to be a sour one for the honey industry thanks to heatwaves, bushfires, and flooding last year in prime honey producing regions. Western Australia in particular was hit by sweltering temperatures, and the heatwaves were so intense that rather than collecting nectar or pollen, the bees were collecting water or remaining inside their hives collectively flapping their wings to bring down the heat. In extreme temperatures, it is possible for the walls of hives to collapse. Honey production this year will be half of what it was in previous years and the lowest it has been in a decade. Unfortunately, the strain has pressured some commercial operations to consider sourcing honey from overseas. Buying Australian made honey and honey products will go a long way toward sweetening the situation, ensuring that the local industry (which usually produces around 16,000 tonnes of honey each year) will not be buzzing off any time soon.

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June 22, 2018, 5:18 PM AEST