About one-third of the food we eat depends on pollination of flowers, with insects doing most of this pollination, but we tend to take this for granted.
In Tasmania plenty of our crops are pollination-dependent: apples and pears, cherries, brassicas, carrot and onion seeds, clover for livestock, and many others.
Most of the pollination is done by European honeybees, with beekeepers paid to move their hives into paddocks and orchards at flowering time.
But there is a crisis emerging here.
Many farmers and orchardists are struggling to find enough available beehives for pollination of their expanding enterprises.
Perhaps other insects or other vectors could provide the required extra pollination, but bumblebees are not up to the job and no potential alternatives are evident.
...we need to exhaust all options for preserving leatherwood.Maurice Rimes
Add to this the government's target for agriculture's farmgate value of $10 billion per year by 2050, over six times the present value, which is very ambitious.
Is the plan for the pollination-dependent crops to contribute about a third of this increase? If so, that's even more ambitious.
So, if pollination continues to be largely dependent on bees, it follows that many more strong healthy bee colonies are needed; but beekeepers will tell you that this is unlikely to happen any time soon.
The main thing needed to enable more bee colonies is more floral resources, specifically those which reliably produce lots of nectar; these are either exotic plants such as clover, or natives - with leatherwood the only species fitting the bill in Tasmania.
Over the last 60 years, leatherwood trees have formed one of the main pillars on which our beekeeping has been based.
However, the size of the leatherwood resource is decreasing.
This is due to loss from fire, as we saw in 2016 and 2019, from less reliability in nectar flow due to climate change effects, and as a consequence of clear-fell and burn forestry operations in recent decades.
Add to this is the accessibility issue in reserves: as a rule-of-thumb, beekeeper vehicle access is needed within three kilometres of the flowers, five at the most, and so transferring areas of leatherwood-rich forest into reserves such as the World Heritage Area with their roading restrictions has led to difficulties in maintaining access.
That is a synopsis of the big hurdle facing expansion in pollination-dependent agriculture.
What is to be done, now that the leatherwood 'pillar' seems to be crumbling? The answer is that Tasmania must find a yet-to-be-discovered way of keeping bees for the express purpose of pollination, without resort to leatherwood.
Maybe we can put the bees on a diet of Queensland sugar? No, I don't think that's a good idea (maybe as an occasional stopgap measure, but not all the time).
Are there any other ideas out there? My conclusion is that we need to exhaust all options for preserving leatherwood, because it is unlikely that a new way of beekeeping will magically be found.
Firstly, Sustainable Timber Tasmania (STT) has recently reached an agreement with the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association (TBA) on Planning Guidelines for Apiary Values.
These guidelines are an agreed compromise between forestry's drive for efficient harvesting of eucalypts on the one hand and beekeepers' push for maximum retention of leatherwood on the other.
Following this agreement, beekeepers have initiated a petition to parliament, aimed at ensuring STT and its contractors stick strictly to these guidelines when planning and conducting timber harvesting.
It is not a radical or an anti-STT petition, but one that requires STT to treat the guidelines as a statutory requirement.
Any Tasmanian citizen can join this petition before August 31 by going to: parliament.tas.gov.au
Secondly, the issues around maintaining, or possibly increasing the access to leatherwood in the World Heritage Area and the state's other reserves are being addressed by the government and the TBA.
Thirdly, why can't lots of new leatherwood trees be grown, for instance planted out as seedlings grown from cuttings - in suitable wet parts of the state? Work is being started to assess the feasibility of this. Watch this space.
If we are to achieve the government's agriculture target, with its great economic and employment benefits for our grandchildren, we must somehow preserve and increase the state's leatherwood resource.
Either that, or put our bees on a sugar diet, or hope that we magically find a new way to keep bees. So, for one thing, the petition is indeed worth joining!
- Maurice Rimes is a member of the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association, a former secretary of its Southern Branch and a member of the Tasmanian Crop Pollinators Association.