Off-season native bee carers give macadamia farmer a pollination backup plan against varroa mite

“Foster parents” who take care of native beehives in their own backyards have helped a Queensland macadamia nut farmer develop a pollination backup plan should the invasive varroa mite spread.  

Geoff Chivers started investigating using the small, stingless insects to pollinate his orchards, which were some of the oldest in Bundaberg, when varroa mite first started spreading around the world

In five years, he has gone from five beehives to 150, which he said was made possible by a group of enthusiastic locals he called the “foster parents”.

“We need to have feed for those bees in the off-season,” he said.

“We actually host them out to families and friends in Bundaberg who have either large areas of native bush around them or backyards in the middle of town where there’s lots of flowering plants or vegetable patches.”

He was not looking for any new foster parents, with all of the beehives adopted and thriving in their host homes.

“We’ve found that the bees actually flourish in the urban environment because of the variety of flowers and other things that they can collect pollen from,” he said.

A mid shot of a man in a blue work shirt holding a small house-like native bee hive in front of a grevillia bush
Macadamia farmer Geoff Chivers has spent years researching and developing native bee hives for use in his orchard.(ABC Rural: Kallee Buchanan)

Macadamia trees have a short flowering window, and because orchards are large and surrounded by monoculture crops, the bees would not have enough food or variety without their host families. 

“The foster parents love it, they really become attached their hives,” he said.

“While we only need the hives for probably four to six weeks each year, they tell me they actually miss them when they’re gone.

“There’s a lot of people that just love to sit out and watch the bees come and go and just do what they do.”

Win-win for bees and community

All of Mr Chivers’ beehives currently have homes with foster parents like retiree Hugh O’Malley, whose wife Allison first suggested they get involved. 

A wide shot of a white haired man resting his hand on a small native bee hive
Hugh O’Malley has been fostering native bees for three years.(ABC Rural: Kallee Buchanan)

“I’ve got a little vegetable garden and I’d had trouble with a lot of plants, like cucumbers for example, with pollination,” Mr O’Malley said.

“Since we’ve had the bees here, which we have for about three years, things like that are growing quite well.”

He said the bees were low-maintenance and easy to integrate into his existing garden. 

“If they need any water they get it off a bit of dew off the grass and of course they know where to go for food,” he said. 

“So I don’t have to do anything … I don’t use any sprays or anything like that, which is good for the bees.

“It’s nice to see them there, and they’re no problem because they don’t sting.”

It’s estimated about 90 per cent of the pollination for macadamia nuts is done by honey bees, but with the detection of the devastating varroa mite in New South Wales, farmers in Queensland have been considering their options should bee numbers drop significantly.

Patience pays off

Mr Chivers said it had taken years of experimentation and education to get the native bees working in his orchard, but he was seeing tangible results. 

“We placed the bees around the outside of the orchard believing that they would move through the orchard,” he said. 

“What we actually saw was around the outside of the orchard, we’re getting a much better nut set, but not so much into the orchard.

“We started experimenting [with] moving the hives actually inside the orchard … we put a grid pattern throughout the orchard so each hive is no more than 50 metres from another hive.”

In one of the oldest orchards in the district, he said kernel recovery — a measure of how much nut is inside the shell that determines what the grower is paid — had risen from 30 to 35 per cent.  

A larger honey bee rests on a white flower beside a small stingless bee.
Native stingless bees (right) are not susceptible to the invasive varroa mite, which can devastate honey bee (left) colonies.(Supplied: Tobias Smith)

Some limits

While it was a success for his farm, Mr Chivers acknowledged there were limits to how much the bees could do in place of traditional honey bee pollination, particularly when it came to breeding and splitting beehives, which is a much slower process in the stingless varieties.

“We couldn’t go out tomorrow and get enough hives to pollinate all the macadamia orchards or other farms around here, but we have enough now, I believe to pollinate, all our own farms,” he said.

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