Honey bees are probably the most underrated living being. Weighing in at one-tenth of a gram, measuring around 14 mm in length and in most cases living just six weeks, these insects literally feed the world by pollinating around one-third of all food crops across the globe. In Australia they are responsible for pollinating between $8 billion and $19 billion worth of produce – most of our fruit, nuts and other crops like canola – every year.
It is not an overstatement to say that wiping out honey bees would trigger crop failures, famines and a humanitarian disaster never before seen in modern society.
Protecting honeybees must be a key plank of Australia’s (and all nations’) agricultural and trade policies. But it isn’t. In fact, the industry is going backwards and is now at risk of becoming unviable. While water scarcity and management garners all the headlines, bees and beekeeping are almost as important to the wellbeing of the economy and, crucially, more in our control.
The problem is simple: some imported goods are called “honey” but are actually honey substitutes. It might be rice, corn or beet syrup. Or it might be a mix of any of those syrups with real honey, to bulk up quantities. And it’s sending our beekeepers broke.
In the decade to 2015 Australian beehive and beekeeper numbers fell by 25 per cent. The reason was simple: keeping bees became less economical as overseas “honey” hit supermarket shelves at one third to one half the price of locally produced honey.
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