Overview of Feral and Managed Honeybees in Australia

Distribution, Abundance, Extent of Interactions with Native Biota, Evidence of Impacts and Future Research
David C Paton, Department of Zoology, The University of Adelaide
for Australian Nature Conservation Agency
Environment Australia, May 1996
ISBN 0 6422 1381 X

4. Management of Honeybees in the Australian Environment

General background

Land-managers in Australia are left in a dilemma about whether honeybees should or should not be managed in areas set aside for conservation and, if managed, what management actions are required. Their dilemma reflects a lack of adequate information on the biology of most native taxa and insufficient information on how these taxa are being affected by honeybees. In the few studies that have been completed, the impacts of honeybees on natural systems have varied from reducing honeyeater populations and reducing seed production in some plants to having a negligible effect on native biota or even enhancing the seed production of a number of other plant species. Such a range of responses is not unexpected.

Interactions between honeybees, and native flora and fauna are complex and diverse. Not only do honeybees interact with a great diversity of flora and fauna at any one time and in a substantial way, but the native plants and animals also interact amongst themselves. As a result consistent negative or positive responses to honeybees across all taxa in all years are unlikely. Furthermore, most natural environments in Australia have been perturbed to some extent since European colonisation. As a result many of the natural interactions within these remnant systems may have changed, even irreparably damaged. Plant-animal interactions are particularly sensitive to perturbations since only one of the partners needs to be affected for both to suffer (eg Ford and Paton 1986; Rathcke and Jules 1993). Habitat fragmentation and degradation are the most significant perturbations affecting Australian flora and fauna (eg Saunders et al. 1990) but honeybees too may have played a role. Past perturbations may have forced some Australian plants to depend on honeybees for full pollination because their native pollinators have declined dramatically or disappeared in some areas (eg table 19; Paton 1993, unpubl., Aizen and Feinsinger 1994). Other plants and animals, however, may continue to decline in the presence of honeybees. The eventual decisions on whether to include or exclude honeybees from an area will depend on which native taxa are to be favoured in that area. The management of honeybees is even more challenging than this. Land managers need to consider:

  1. both feral and managed populations of honeybees;
  2. the economic ramifications to the beekeeping and horticultural industries of excluding or further restricting access of commercial beekeepers to selected areas;
  3. implementing buffer zones several kilometres in width around sensitive areas to effectively exclude honeybees; and
  4. integrating management actions both on and off reserves.

Current and future approaches to management

Rules and regulations have been implemented in different states to control various aspects of the honeybee industry and to set a code of behavioural standards for beekeepers. Most of these rules and regulations are designed to minimise accidental spread of various bee diseases, weeds and plant pathogens like Phytophthora, or to minimise physical disturbance at apiary sites or hazards to the general public. These regulations largely operate through the primary industry and environment portfolios of each state. Current management of honeybees in areas set aside for conservation consists mainly of restricting or managing access by beekeepers. In most cases this has involved limiting the access of beekeepers to specific sites where apiaries can be placed within reserves, with little or no restrictions on the time of the year, the length of time or the numbers of hives that 51 can be placed at a site. Little effort is spent on controlling feral colonies of honeybees in conservation areas.

Although states currently have some control on whether managed hives should be placed in a particular reserve or not, they have negligible control over the placement of apiaries on private property immediately adjacent to a reserve. Honeybees can readily harvest resources up to 2 km from their hives, so effective exclusion of managed hives from a reserve will also require apiaries to be excluded from a relatively wide buffer zone around a reserve. Since enacting legislation that prevents apiaries from being placed on land adjacent to a reserve will be difficult, effective exclusion of honeybees from a reserve will depend on the goodwill of beekeepers.

Most states regularly review their policies on beekeeping in reserves and these reviews largely involve re-assessing whether managed honeybees should or should not be permitted in reserves because of impacts on wildlife or the lack of them. Some states, notably Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory, are considering phasing out and/or banning beekeeping from nature reserves, justifying this on the belief that endemic flora and fauna will benefit if alien taxa including honeybees are excluded from conservation areas. In other states continued access for beekeepers to `traditional' resources within reserves is likely to continue but no expansion. In this case the justification is a belief that the continued presence of honeybees in conserved lands will cause no further permanent damage. Neither belief is likely to hold true in all situations and as a consequence both policies are open to criticism.

The management of honeybees will remain contentious while there is insufficient information on the effects of honeybees on Australian biota. Since obtaining sufficient information will be time consuming, alternative approaches to management that do not depend on evidence of impacts should be considered.

Realistically the exclusion of managed honeybees from all reserves will be difficult for a variety of reasons, both practical and political. Furthermore in some areas the inclusion of honeybees within a reserve may be required for the maintenance of certain plant species that may have lost their native pollinators. Given the recent emphasis on the conservation of biodiversity at a regional scale, an alternative approach would be to manage honeybees in such a way that at least some areas of natural resources within each region are maintained entirely free of honeybees (for those regions where honeybees are already present). This would at least promote diversity in these regions with interactions between Australian biota and honeybees ranging from no or negligible interaction at some locations to a variable level of interaction at other locations.

Such an approach to managing honeybees would need to be developed in cooperation with the honeybee industry. The first step should consist of developing a core strategy that can be applied nationally that is also mutually' acceptable to both land managers and beekeepers. Agencies like the Australian Nature Conservation Agency would have a key role in facilitating this.

The following is given to illustrate possible key components of a core strategy but note that the statements given are not intended to be either exhaustive or to preempt alternatives.

  1. Managed honeybees should be excluded from all reserves that have had no history of regular use by beekeepers.
  2. Continued access for beekeepers to conserved resources without expansion should be permitted in reserves that have had a history of regular use by beekeepers, provided that:
    1. the extent of use of natural resources in the region does not exceed the value set in statement 3 (below);
    2. there is no specific evidence for that reserve that shows that continued use is detrimental to natural processes; and
    3. if research shows a detrimental effect then methods of reducing that impact by adjusting apiary size, spacing of apiaries and timing of use must -be assessed before negotiating with beekeepers a strategy for reducing access.
  3. At least 30% of the natural resources that remain within each biogeographic region should be free from exposure to managed honeybees (note that the 30% is only illustrative, and a higher or lower value could be agreed to). Where less than 30% is free from managed honeybees a mutually agreed program of reducing the level of use within a certain time period (eg 5 years) be negotiated with the beekeeping industry.

One advantage of such an approach is that management actions are based entirely on the area of land within a region that is exposed to honeybees and not on whether the interactions are detrimental or not to natural systems. The approach provides some protection for natural systems from honeybees while still allowing beekeepers access to natural resources in other parts of a region. Natural resources both on and off reserves can and should be included in this program. Although the above does not include feral populations of honeybees, a similar set of statements could be developed and incorporated into the above to guarantee that a proportion of the natural systems of a region are also free of feral honeybees.

There will clearly be some debate about the scale of these management programs, the proportion of natural resources that should be free of honeybees, and how the area of natural resources exposed to managed honeybees should be determined. Initially management of honeybees could be examined at the scale of the regions defined by the Interim Biogeographical Regionalisation of Australia (IBRA), and then subsequently at a finer scale, perhaps subunits (eg habitat types) within IBRA regions. Something approaching a 2 km radius around each apiary could be used to estimate the area of natural resources exposed to managed honeybees within a region in the first instance. In due course a more sophisticated approach could take into account stocking rates (apiary size, length of tenure) and eventually stocking rates might be adaptive, being adjusted, perhaps annually, to changes in local floral densities (eg see Paton 1990).

Such an area-based regional approach may also help to direct future research, with research being concentrated in those regions experiencing the most extensive exposure to honeybees. One of the immediate research programs might involve compiling statistics on the distributions of managed and feral populations of honeybees within regions to assist in identifying those regions where negligible areas of natural resources are free from honeybees. These regions should then be targeted for research and management. This should consist of developing acceptable methods of reducing the area over which honeybees interact with the natural systems of the region, implementing these actions, and measuring the biotic responses to them.