Tasmanian honey producers are preparing to hold a crisis meeting, after experiencing their worst season in decades.
One of the state’s biggest producers has started laying off staff, with leatherwood honey production at that company down 90 per cent.
Dry conditions are mostly to blame, with many bees now starving to death due to wilting leatherwood flowers and a lack of pollen.
Recent Tasmanian bushfires have also impacted, destroying prime bee honey harvesting areas.
Shirley Stephens, who has been working at one of Tasmania’s oldest honey producers, R. Stephens Apiarists, in the state’s north-west for more than 60 years, said this year was the worst she had seen.
“Even last year we produced 280 tonnes of [honey] and this year we’ll be lucky to get 20 tonnes,” she said.
“That’s a huge loss.”
Beekeepers are now trying to keep starving bees alive with sugar water.
The company keeps hives in Tasmania’s west coast rainforests.
In most years between December and April, the frames which return from hives in the rainforests are covered in honey and beeswax.
But this season, most of them have come back empty, and machinery at the Mole Creek processing plant has hardly operated.
Ms Stephens said the downturn had forced the company to let five staff go, and she would not be surprised if other Tasmanian producers followed suit.
“We will just tighten the seatbelt as much as we can,” she said.
“We’ll get through. It’s the nature of a beekeeper to always look forward — never look back — that won’t do any good.”
Tasmanian honey downturn ‘disastrous’
The recent Tasmanian bushfires destroyed hives and wiped out a significant number of leatherwood trees, many of which could take more than 100 years to recover.
Tasmanian Beekeepers Association president Lindsay Bourke said honey producers across the state were affected.
“It’s really disastrous. It’s the worst we’ve had since 1981,” he said.
“We don’t want to let anyone go, but if you haven’t got an income and you can’t afford to do it, they will have to let some of their people go.”
Mr Bourke said the downturn was “totally unexpected” and sales would be lost.
“I always thought that climate change wouldn’t make any difference to us. I welcomed a bit more heat, but it dried everything out,” he said.
“I’m really hoping that some of our overseas customers will just wear that we can’t supply them anymore.”
“If you can get leatherwood, you’re doing a good job because there isn’t much out there.”
Producers may need to diversify
A Tasmanian bee industry crisis meeting has been scheduled for March 29 to discuss ways forward.
Many of those in the industry believe they will need to diversify to continue.
Ms Stephens said she had asked the Tasmanian Government about assistance.
“We are qualified as farmers even though we’re beekeepers,” she said.
“There are some grants out there that are necessary, but what we really need is some finance to help feed these bees, like a drought relief.
“We can’t really say that it’s extended drought relief, because it’s only just hit us this year, but it’s hit us hard.”