A Real Buzzkill


It would have been dark. Pitch black. June 15, 2012 was mild and dry on the corrugated dirt road leading off the Princes Highway. The afternoon temperature had hit a high for the month, creeping up to 19.5 degrees — the close of a beautiful winter day in Batemans Bay.

It’s not clear who they hit first, but by the time the killers appeared, dusk would have settled, making the dirt roads that wind through the Kioloa, Boyne and Benandarah state forests and the Murramarang National Park difficult to navigate for anyone unfamiliar with their twists and turns. Over the course of that night the killers struck at least 10 times, leaving millions dead.

Bees keep a tidy schedule. They’re up early, they work hard all day, and as night falls they’re tucked up in bed. There’s no chance then that they would have seen the killers coming. But whoever navigated those roads, reaching hives up to five kilometres off the beaten track, they were methodical. They had spray poison, probably in backpacks with extendable hoses. They used a generic, easy-to-get-hold-of product, such as Roundup or pyrethrum. You can buy it at your local hardware store.

Commercial bee hives sit stacked on wooden pallets, usually three wide, two deep, two high. At the base of each hive is an opening, no higher than two centimetres, and maybe 20 centimetres long. That’s where the bees come and go. Each hive holds between 50,000 and 75,000 European honeybees, so getting out in a rush isn’t practical.

The hives sit just off the road, they’re not fenced. Security might stretch to warning signs and maybe a motion-sensor camera. The killers’ job was straightforward. Working quickly, shrouded in darkness, they sprayed the hive entrances.

They hit about 2,000 hives in total. The size of the sites varied, with one occupied by just 30 hives; while others, comparative cities of bees, numbered up to 400.

When the poison hit them the sleeping bees panicked. They rushed in a frenzy for the exit. Blocking it with their bodies, trapping most of the colony inside. Some would have escaped to sting their attackers — an ultimately futile suicide mission.

There are beehives all over this neck of the woods, nestled in groups under spotted gums and grey ironbark trees, their occupants whipping up the sweet stuff from surrounding raw materials. In the parks and forests that bump up against the narrow, undulating highway as it winds its way from Nowra to Batemans Bay, millions of bees go about their business, making honey for Capilano Honey, Woolworths and many others.

Batemans Bay apiarist Pat Roberts has been keeping bees his whole life. His father was a beekeeper, and the family has held over 100 leases in parks and forests in the Batemans Bay area since well before he was born.

“Dad had 11 children, 7 boys. There’s only two of us still into bees,” Roberts says. “I’m 71 this year and they said I did my apprenticeship before I went to school. I’m the third generation, and the two boys [his sons] they’re the fourth and my eldest daughter has married into a bee keeping family.”

Roberts’s wife Wendy collects memorabilia, and their suburban Batemans Bay home is packed full of honey bees — stuffed, porcelain, embroidered, hanging and framed.

The day after the bees were poisoned an unaware Roberts got a phone call from a fellow apiarist who was holidaying in Asia, saying he’d been told that bees were dying along the coast. Roberts didn’t think much of it. The next day another beekeeper called and said some of his hives had been poisoned. On Monday June 18, Pat Roberts went out to check on his bees. It is a short drive, not more than 20 minutes to some of his bee sites.

“I went round one site, and it was fine. And then I went to another, and it was fine, too.” Pat thought maybe he’d escaped unscathed. Almost as an afterthought he turned off the Pacific Highway and onto the dirt track of Livingstone Creek Road. Tucked about 1.5 kilometres up the road, off the shoulder on the right hand side, was a cluster of 240 hives, where he would usually expect to find his bees hard at work, feeding on the buds of flowering spotted gum.

But these bees weren’t working.

“You could see where they tried to all rush out, and they got caught up — like people all rushing for the exit in a fire,” he says. “They kept dying and dying and dying.”

He estimates each of those 240 hives would have yielded about 16 kilos of honey over the summer. But the bees alone were worth tens of thousands of dollars, and the Roberts’s company, Australian Rainforest Honey, will also have to forgo close to $20,000 normally earned from leasing the hives to almond farmers in Robinvale, Victoria, who hire the bees during spring, to pollinate their trees.

Doug Sommerville — technical specialist, honeybees, for the NSW Department of Primary Industries — estimates the attack of June 15 will cost the bee farmers about $500,000 all up, when you factor in replacing bees and hives, as well as lost earnings from honey production and pollination.

Sommerville says over the years he’s seen the aftermath of many attacks on beehives, but none on this scale. Usually, he says, it’s people who don’t believe commercial bees should be allowed in state and national parks.

“I’ve seen them shot up, run down by four-wheel drives… I’ve seen them flattened… burned, flooded, but that’s usually nature’s fault. Sometimes you get kids throwing stones at them,” he says.

Some 70 to 80 per cent of Australian honey production comes from the pollen and nectar of Australian flowering eucalypt. About half of all suitable sites for honey production are on public land.

The Batemans Bay area is home to a large swathe of spotted gum, which is popular among honey producers because it is one of the few Eucalypts that flowers in the winter, allowing bees to go about their work year-round.

Bees make honey to supply their colonies. It is stored in honeycomb and used to feed larvae and sustain the worker bees. To get the most out of their hives, Australian honey producers have to move their bees around, maximising their proximity to flowering flora throughout the seasons.

The trees that grow around Batemans Bay, and up to Nowra, are some of the best for winter honey production, so areas in the state and national parks are highly coveted. National Parks and NSW Forestry administer the sites through a system of leases. Apiarists who hold leases in the temperate forests consider themselves fortunate.

In the mid-1990s Sommerville did an audit of all the leases in NSW; there were well over 3,000. Most have been held by the same families or companies for decades. It’s hard for new producers to get a foothold in the industry.

Despite commercial bee production’s longstanding and widespread presence on public lands, some people don’t like having them there. Horse riders who might get stung by bees on their way past; some conservation groups who want the spaces free from commercial uses. Sommerville says such a range of opponents makes it hard to pin down who’s to blame for the mass bee murder.

But Pat Roberts believes this attack was an inside job.

“Who would hate you that much? You know what I mean, it’s taking your livelihood away… It won’t put us out of business, but it’s hurt a lot.”

Roberts loves his bees. And it’s not the financial loss that’s hit him the hardest. “The worst part is burning them,” he says. “Seeing all the work you’ve done go up in smoke.”

The dead bees and their hives were shipped to Wagga Wagga in south-central NSW, where Roberts’s son has property, and then burned and buried to prevent the poison lingering.

Thousands more bees tried to escape and they’re scattered on the forest floor around the poisoned leases. More than a month after the attacks, the smell in these areas, a thick, musky odour, still hits you, overpowering the dry sweetness of the towering, flowering gums.

Looking at the damage adds to Roberts’s confidence in his inside-job theory; someone from the tight-knit bee-keeping community had to be involved, he reckons. Familiarity with the location of the leases, understanding the best time to strike, and knowing the most effective way to kill — all these factors point to a fellow apiarist having taken part in the attack.

“Everybody in the industry knows each other in some way or other. There’s very few I do not know. If it’s somebody outside the industry I will be relieved,” he says. But then he stops to think, and decides an outsider, who might have allies the police wouldn’t catch, is more dangerous in the long term.

“I just hope they catch them,” he says.

Paul Manns’s bees supply Capilano Honey. Manns lives in Gundagai but has leases in the Batemans Bay area. He lost 60 hives in the poisoning. Another clutch of his hives, 160 in all, is positioned well off the highway. They bear the discreet markers of his company — Gundagai Bee Farms.

Both Manns and Roberts believe the attack was designed to try and loosen the dominance of some of the bigger bee farms like theirs.

“All six [of the bee farmers] who were hit were the six largest ones,” Manns says. “That’s a pretty big coincidence, and you’d have to be in [the industry] to know that.

“There’s a shortage of bee sites down here on the south coast. Somebody might have got their nose out of joint … It could have been anybody.”

To recognise the hives belonging to Manns, you’d have to know his branding, which isn’t very prominent, just some lettering on the hives. That’s the kind of detail that makes him sure insiders killed his colonies.

Also, he adds, “[Once sprayed] the bees would pour out the front and if you’ve got a torch they’ll be stinging you, so you’ve got to be quick.” Another indicator that the saboteurs knew what they were doing.

About two years ago, hives belonging to Manns’s brother Graham were poisoned in a similar way, but the attack seemed isolated, like the random violence Doug Sommerville described to The Global Mail. In Manns’s case, someone lifted the lids on his hives and sprayed directly inside — which seems a less informed and very risky method of attack.

Paul Manns is now getting ready to ship his hives to almond farmers in Robinvale for the spring. Almond trees, like many other agricultural crops, require bees to pollinate their flowers, in order to produce almonds. A busy honeybee will visit a number of flowers on each foray outside the hive. On its journey, its legs become coated in pollen which is then transferred from one compatible tree to another and vice versa — allowing the almonds to develop.

Despite human ingenuity and resulting technology, bees remain the most effective way of ensuring cross-pollination.

Bee farming seems elementary, but it’s a complex business.

First there’re the bees. They come from breeders, who raise queens and starter colonies and sell them to the farmers. Getting a new hive up and running to a point where it will produce honey takes about nine months, Pat Roberts says. Then you have to put the hive in the right place — somewhere close to good honey trees. And there are many varieties of tree to choose from.

“There’s a whole range of flavours, it’s like the difference between peach and apricot jam,” Roberts says.

You have to move the hives at specific times, because trees don’t flower constantly; some bloom in spring, some in summer, and, more rarely, some in autumn and winter. Furthermore, some trees — such as the spotted gum — have a lengthy cycle of up to four years between flowering.

Limited access to the best areas for honey production has caused tension between those who own the leases, and those who want to get into the industry or who want a bigger slice of the honey-producing market. Apiarists targeted in the June attack believe this is what drove the mass sabotage.

Because leases are held onto for generations by long-standing bee families like the Roberts and Manns, it is difficult for new players to gain a foothold in the industry. Having access to good flowering eucalypts year round is crucial for a steady stream of honey, and smaller, newer operators are forced to travel further for good spots.

The European honey bee, which was imported to Australia by early European settlers to aid their crops, is in a fragile position. Around the world entire colonies have been dying out due to attack by predators such as the aggressive Asian honey bee and the devastating Varroa destructor, a parasite that is lethal to both farmed and feral bees. The Australian industry has so far remained largely unaffected by such predators, because of our strict quarantine controls, and vigilant apiarists. Bees are also prone to disease; and other pests, such as the imported small hive beetle, can wipe out whole colonies.

“These attacks just add to the threat,” Sommerville says of the June strike on local hives.

A 2011 briefing prepared by the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council reported bees are worth billions to the Australian economy.

“The bee industry contributes around $80 million a year to the Australian economy through honey and related products. In addition, the contribution of pollination services to agriculture is estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually.”

“Honey bees and beekeepers are found in all states of Australia — some 10,000 beekeepers using approximately 600,000 hives, to produce anything between 20 to 30 thousand metric tonnes [of honey] annually,” the briefing says.

“The bee industry contributes around $80 million a year to the Australian economy through honey and related products. In addition, the contribution of pollination services to agriculture is estimated to be worth billions of dollars annually.”

The message is clear: bees don’t just make honey, they pollinate crops that feed us, and the animals we eat. Albert Einstein, it is claimed, once predicted that if bees were to become extinct, the human race would last just four more years. Although there’s doubt that this quote originated from Einstein, there’s little disagreement that the extinction of bees would cause real problems for food security and production.

In Australia, a 2008 parliamentary report into the industry reiterated that bees’ contribution to overall agricultural production can be calculated in the billions of dollars. It said: “Taking into account all plant-based industries and wool, meat and dairy production, it is estimated that honey bees contribute directly to between $4 billion and $6 billion worth of agricultural production.”

In far north Queensland, where the Asian honey bee has breached quarantine borders, the fight to protect Australia’s bees from that pest is costing the industry, and state and federal governments, tens of millions of dollars. The federal government recently abandoned a push to eradicate the invader, having determined that goal is impossible to achieve, and is instead attempting to contain the Asian bees with poisons and more stringent quarantine programs.

If the Asian honey bee does spread further south, it could mean devastation for bee farmers.

As if pests and the spectre of disease weren’t enough to deal with, the industry is also incredibly sensitive to environmental factors. In May 2012 the bee industry council’s annual report gave a lacklustre assessment of the NSW honey yield for the year.

“Most beekeepers are only expecting an average year with a lot of the eucalypt resources flowering last year (whether they produced or not) they are not expected to back up again. Short term budders and ground flora will need to step up for the state to have even an average year,” Ken Gell, NSW resource chairman for the council wrote.

That was before the poisonings.

As many producers on the south coast prepare to take their hives into areas where bees will pollinate almond and canola crops, Neil Bingley, who lost 30 hives in the attack, is remaining at home. Although he’s concerned that the attacks may continue, he’s calculated that, for his business, staying put is the better bet.

Bingley is less sure than his colleagues about who might be to blame for the poisonings.

“I’m not going to commit to anything. Anybody could have sprayed them,” he says. But he adds, that the attack was “so widespread; it goes 40ks east and west and about 30ks north and south between the loads that were targeted, so somebody was busy. They didn’t do it in five minutes.”

No, they did it in one night, destroying some 2,000 hives — a figure that has risen from an initial toll of more that 1200, after more dead in the last few weeks. Doug Sommerville tells me one keeper, a Queen Bee breeder, returned home from a long overseas trip last week to discover 400 hives destroyed.

“Each hive was individually sprayed at the entrance, so somebody had to physically walk through and spray them, so it’d take a while,” Bingley observes.

“They just would have tried to get out. The poison would have come in, and they would have all been rushing and they would have gotten trapped.”

What’s more, not every hive that the perpetrators would have driven past that night was targeted, suggesting those responsible were looking to damage certain honey producers.

Pat Roberts tells The Global Mail his bees were guarded by a camera and a warning sign that said they were under surveillance. But the camera was a dummy. Another hint, he says, that those doing the spraying knew their targets.

Local police have appealed to the public for information, in the hope that witnesses will come forward. The police would not talk to The Global Mail on the record. One investigator said it was likely that the attack was carried out by someone in the industry, because of the amount of planning that appears to have gone into it.

Neil Bingley, whose father became a beekeeper almost 60 years ago, says he doesn’t believe police will catch the criminals.

“Someone would have to talk to someone at the local pub.” That is, someone would have to boast, or let slip that they’d taken part in the sabotage. Otherwise, says Bingley, the poison is too widely available to track: “How can they trace it? They can’t, it’s just your typical insect spray, you can get it anywhere.”

Doug Sommerville says the bee industry is, “full of people like everywhere else; some are perfectly nice, others are not so pleasant”.

When I ask him if he thinks these poisonings will have a serious impact on Australia’s honey industry, Sommerville says bee farming just gets harder — what with the threats of pests, drought, flood and vandalism.

“It’s a wonderful way of life, but it’s a rotten way to make a living,” he says.

Pat Roberts is driving his ute through the state forest, past increasingly severely logged clearings. He turns up a quick sharp hill and comes to a stop at a sunny flat. The bees here are busily commuting from ironbark to ironbark. Using a small pine-needle smoker, but eschewing the traditional protective gear, Roberts cracks open a hive.

The honeycomb inside is packed with bees. Roberts reaches in with an ungloved hand and pulls off a hunk of pale wax. He hands it to me, with the sticky runny honey dripping.

Honey never goes off. It is the only food that will not curdle, expire or rot. But it is perhaps cleanest, sweetest and most delicate, straight from the hive. As Roberts pokes around his hives he is stung once on the hand. A bit later, holding a frame packed with honeycomb from a second hive (where, he says, the bees are more aggressive) he flinches a little. “There’s one down the back of my shirt. It’s getting a bit angry.”

But he doesn’t make any sudden moves, waiting for the bee to find its own way out. And then he goes on to another hive, opening it up to show the bees at work. He points to the opening at the bottom of this healthy hive, where bees are coming and going.

“They just would have tried to get out. The poison would have come in, and they would have all been rushing and they would have gotten trapped,” he explains.

Roberts repeats this, or a version of it, about six times as we move around, visiting the hives. Each time he stops, takes a minute to gather himself, and shakes his head.

It’s a nasty business, this massacre.

This post originally appeared on The Global Mail. You can read it here.


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