An article in Bee World (Vol. 77, No. 1, pp. 26-44) “Honey native bee competition: focal point for environmental change and apicultural response in Australia,” by W. Sugden, R. Thorp and S. Buchman begins with the following statement:
“Beekeepers everywhere now find themselves in the midst of complex and inescapable change.” This is not a new trend, according the article, but one that is accelerating worldwide. Past changes included widespread pesticide use and introduction of exotic diseases and bee mites. Ironically, the honey bee itself became a major threat to beekeeping. An introduced population of almost unpredictable Africanized bees literally destroyed organized apiculture in South and Central America, before it could remake itself from its own ashes.
Although important, the article says, the changes related above are not as significant as global deterioration of environmental quality. Honey bees matter here; apiculture itself uses an introduced insect. The honey bee is extremely efficient in gathering resources. As such it is an effective competitor for native non-Apis bees, birds and other species for nutritional resources in the environment. Other possible impacts include competition for nest sites with mammals, birds and other organisms. Honey bees also may be responsible for pollinating and, thus, increasing weed production.
The article states that, “Australia is both a paradox and paradigm regarding beekeeping and bee ecology.” Apiculture has grown rapidly over the last 50 years and commercial pollination may contribute as much as $4 billion to the economy. During the same time period, however, alteration, fragmentation and loss of habitat have also resulted in a huge reduction of the biological diversity found on the continent, much in the native eucalyptus forests, known for their nectar production. Many of these lands have come under government control for various reasons. According to the article, this situation has caused contentious relations between beekeepers who desire to use this resource, conservationists, scientists and governmental resource managers.
The Australian situation is not unique. For many years, Florida beekeepers have applied to keep bees on publicly managed lands. They have been for the most part successful. However, similar to Australia, there are many reasons for governmental land managers to take a conservative, go-slow approach in the Sunshine State. This translates into resistance to introduction of beekeeping into state or national preserves and parks.
Florida, like Australia, was considered a “beekeeping paradise” in the early 1900s. Many old-timers could fondly speak of year around bumper crops of honey from Sebring southward. Frank Robinson, formerly at the University of Florida, reported so in “Relationship of Melaleuca to Beekeeping,” Proceedings of Melaleuca Symposium, Florida Division of Forestry, September 23- 24, 1980. Unfortunately, Mr. Robinson concluded, this bee pasture has given way to large-scale commercial agriculture, improved pastures, and highway and urban development. On the other hand, the introduced plant, Melaleuca quinquenervia, has helped beekeeping overcome much of this loss, and is responsible for supporting almost two-thirds (221,000) of Florida’s colonies in 1979.
Melaleuca now, however, is considered a “noxious weed” under Chapter 5B-57 Rules of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Plant Industry. It is, therefore, unlawful to introduce, possess, move or release either it or Brazilian pepper (Shinus terebinthifolius) without a permit. Both nectar- producing plants were recently chosen as two of the state’s worst offenders at a meeting titled: “Building Partnerships to Control Invasive Plants on Public and Private Lands in Florida,” according to the Florida Farm Bureau’s (FFB) issue brief by Kevin Morgan.
The FFB’s FloridAgriculture (November 1996) contains a detailed article on the invasive plant problem, considered to be one of Florida’s worst environmental problems. Melaleuca and Brazilian pepper now occupy almost 1.2 million acres of public land. The FFB supports the development of public-private partnerships to aid private landowners in voluntary eradication programs in conjunction with programs on public lands. According to Dr. Gary Buckingham, a United States Department of Agriculture scientist quoted in the article, Florida now has a crisis in growth of exotic species.
Of all invasive plants, Melaleuca poses the greatest threat, according to “Melaleuca Management Plan for Florida,” published by the Exotic Pest Council and edited by F. Laroche, April 1994. This document proposes an integrated management philosophy, including use of physical, chemical and biological control to eliminate this plant. It acknowledges that eradication is not realistic and concludes the success of the program will probably depend on biological control agents introduced from Australia. One, a weevil, Oxyops vitiosa, should be released shortly.
The writing is on the wall. It is illegal to propagate Melaleuca and a major control program is underway. The same is true for Brazilian pepper. Although beekeepers can fight these changes, this probably will not be in their best interests. One colleague here at the University of Florida urges apiculturists to embrace biological control. This approach provides an alternative to chemical control which is much more devastating on a short-term basis. Biological control results in a more honey-bee-favorable biological system and is not expected to result in total eradication of plants. It is also long-term, providing a gradual phase out of nectar resources that beekeepers in areas most affected can acclimate to.
As the Bee World article says: “The implications are that beekeepers will have to adapt to a rapidly changing world. Native bees, birds and other animals, and efforts to conserve them are not to blame, but are merely the most obvious problematic aspect of an emerging modern view of apiculture. This view is utilitarian and environmental, and runs against the romantic vision of the honey bee as a special, almost mysterious creature above the laws of nature and whose sole purpose is to serve humans (see April and July 1996 APIS). It also runs against the vision of apiculture as a strictly beneficial or at least benign enterprise.”
The article recommends beekeepers do the following in working together with scientists, land managers and others to develop cooperative and proactive responses to urgent environmental problems:
1. Continue to call for careful evaluation of publicly managed land as possible apiary locations, while at the same time reevaluating the honey bee’s contribution to the environment.
2. Help revitalize public education by reaching out to schools electronically and through live demonstrations, video productions and other means.
3. Promote beekeeping and apicultural products through organizations like the National Honey Board and Australia’s Honeybee Research and Development Council. According to Trevor Weatherhead (e-mail from firstname.lastname@example.org, January 9, 1997), The Honeybee Research and Development Council is now called the Honeybee Research and Development Committee (HBRDC), set up under Government legislation to fund Research and Development (R&D). It has no charter to promote the industry or apicultural products. Statutory levies are collected on honey sales, Australia wide, and this money can only be used to fund R&D. The money spent on R&D, and not administration, is matched at the present time dollar for dollar by the Australian Government. Australia did have a body to fund industry and product promotion but that no longer exists.
4. Work with local communities to devise new ways of using industrial, urban and reclaimed landscapes as bee forage, and help design and implement “beekeeping reserves” as has been done in Australia.
The article concludes that beekeepers should be open to new technology such as using alternative pollinators, and be prepared to turn change into opportunity. This is not so far fetched with reference to Melaleuca. According to a March 1989 (Vol. 2 No. 40) issue of New Times: Miami’s News and Arts Weekly, quoting Julia Morton, University of Miami biologist, Florida beekeepers complained about Melaleuca in the 1950s, fearing their livelihoods would be affected by the strong-smelling and -tasting nectar. By the 1970s, however, beekeepers had developed a bakery market for the honey and out-of-staters had begun to winter increasing numbers of colonies near Melaleuca stands as an alternative to the then-tradition of feeding sugar for survival in more temperate areas.
Although Melaleuca has now become a necessary plant for beekeeping survival as many know it, inescapable change is on the horizon to control the spread of this and other plants. Like other events in modern beekeeping, this is not an “abnormal” course of affairs, for neither the cultural nor biological world are ever static. As stated above, it remains for beekeepers to look for and objectively evaluate inevitable changes as they occur, and deal with them in a creative manner. After all, this is exactly what their honey bee charges themselves have done for millennia.