Three Tasmanian senators give commercial bumblebee trial thumbs up

HIVE COMPETITION: The Tasmanian Beekeepers' Association president Lindsay Bourke said using bumblebees for commercial pollination would harm the honey bee industry. Picture: Stuart Wilson

HIVE COMPETITION: The Tasmanian Beekeepers' Association president Lindsay Bourke said using bumblebees for commercial pollination would harm the honey bee industry. Picture: Stuart Wilson

A senate inquiry that investigated using Tasmania’s bumblebee population for commercial pollination has recommended the federal government amend legislation to allow a two-year trial to go ahead.

But the state’s beekeepers have vowed to fight the decision, saying bumblebees will adversely impact Tasmania’s honey bee population.

The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry, chaired by Tasmanian senator Peter Whish-Wilson, published its report last week.

POLLINATION POTENTIAL: Tomato producer Anthony Brandsema said using bumblebees to pollinate his tomato crop would increase yields. Picture: Grant Wells

POLLINATION POTENTIAL: Tomato producer Anthony Brandsema said using bumblebees to pollinate his tomato crop would increase yields. Picture: Grant Wells

REASONS FOR BUMBLEBEE TRIAL

Mr Whish-Wilson said the inquiry was convened because Tasmanian businesses and stakeholders wanted to conduct a trial using Tasmania’s existing bumblebee population to pollinate selected crops, such as tomatoes, which the Tasmanian government and Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture supported.

“The inquiry heard about the risks and benefits and weighed these up. We support a limited trial in Tasmania by the government and Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, but it would be under very strict conditions,” Mr Whish-Wilson said.

“There would be a two-year review period to see whether it is commercially viable and whether risks can be managed.

“To do that we need to change the federal laws to allow the use of existing feral [bumblebee] populations,” he said.

The reasons a bumblebee trial was considered was the pressure honey bees are under and the expense associated with hiring honey bees to pollinate crops, Mr Whish-Wilson said.

“It is expensive to hire honey bees as pollinators. Producers are paying lots of money for pollinators so [a trial] will impact honey bee producers,” Mr Whish-Wilson said.

“We have to weigh these risks against the benefits to agriculture in Tasmania. [Bumblebees] are potentially very valuable, [but are] a competitor for honey bees, but that depends on how well they pollinate,” he said.

BUZZING ABOUT: Queen bumblebee found in East Devonport by Kathy Bugg.

BUZZING ABOUT: Queen bumblebee found in East Devonport by Kathy Bugg.

ARGUMENT AGAINST BUMBLEBEE TRIAL

Bumblebees have been in Tasmania since the 1990s and are suspected to have come from New Zealand, based on genetic testing.

However, the state’s population has become inbred and are not effective pollinators, Tasmanian Beekeepers’ Association president Lindsay Bourke said.

“The Tasmanian bumblebee is not a proper bumblebee. It’s so far inbred so only half as good as New Zealand bumblebees and a quarter as good as European bumblebees,” Mr Bourke said.

“A trial would not be successful. These bumblebees are hopeless because they’re inbred. They’re just a novelty,” he said.

Tasmanian beekeepers made submission to the inquiry and will make further contact to ensure their views are heard, Mr Bourke said.

“No one in the Australia beekeeping industry wants to have bumblebees. We don’t need competition from them. They have to think about the consequences for the rest of us,” he said.

While outlining his concerns about the bumblebee pollination trial, Mr Bourke did agree the industry needed to grow to cope with increased demand from the agricultural sector.

“There is no shortage of bees to pollinate cherries, but we do scratch around with other crops, like carrots.” Mr Bourke said.

“We’ve got to expand the beekeeping industry. We’re working with agriculture, forestry and parks to increase the industry,” he said.

Tasmania’s colder climate shortens the season for the state’s beekeepers, and “it takes all spring and most of summer to get hives up to scratch,” Mr Bourke said.

“We are very concerned because we can live with [the level of bumblebees] at the moment. Once they’re in there’s no way of getting rid of them. It’ll be like the wasps,” he said.

Tasmanian senators Jonathon Duniam and Anne Urquart were also members of the committee, which continued over two parliaments as the initial inquiry was disrupted by the double dissolution election.

WHAT HAPPENS NOW

The federal government will now consider the report and a debate will be heard in response, Mr Whish-Wilson said.

“I think this has a good chance. We’re hopeful for [a decision during] the second half of the year,” he said.

A Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment department was spokesperson said the department made a submission to the senate inquiry which broadly supported a trial.

“The department recognises the significance of pollination to Tasmanian fruit vegetable and seed industries and believes there is the opportunity to carefully and cautiously explore whether the existing feral population of bumblebees could be put to a beneficial purpose, without posing any further threat to the environment or any other existing industry,” the spokesperson said.

“The department does not support any initiatives that could compromise Tasmania’s or Australia’s biosecurity. However with bumblebees already widely established in Tasmania, there is the opportunity to investigate their potential to assist pollination by using already present bumblebees within fully enclosed facilities,” the spokesperson said.

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