Tasmanian Pollination Services, a Bejo subsidiary, is one of Australia's largest apiaries. Although the honey the bees make is a good source of revenue, their main job is pollination – indispensable for the sustainable production of vegetable seeds. Soon, other insects will be introduced to support the bees.
Carrot crops grown by Bejo for seed production begin to shoot at the end of spring and flower for six to eight weeks in summer. The first flowers quickly attract insects. They’re joined later by large numbers of honeybees, released to boost pollination and ensure successful seed production. This is the job of a specialist beekeeper who knows exactly when pollination needs to take place to produce the best seeds. “Beekeepers are traditionally concerned with honey production,” says Mick Palmer, Apiary Operations Manager at Tasmanian Pollination Services. “For pollination you need a different focus. We want to make the best use of a specific part of the flowering period to achieve the best quality seeds and fruits. And that means our bees collect less nectar and pollen. Sometimes we even have to feed them.”
Ideal conditions for seed production
Growers on multiple continents benefit from the work of the Australian bees. Tasmanian Pollination Services, part of Bejo Australia, is associated with an important vegetable seed production area. Bejo supplies seeds to growers in more than 120 countries, producing them in areas with optimum conditions, one of them being Tasmania. The island’s climate is favourable for a large number of crops, including carrot, various brassicas, beetroot and onions. There’s plenty of space to prevent unwanted cross-pollination. And Tasmania’s isolated location keeps it free of many plant diseases and pests.
Keeping an apiary means better seeds
Bejo has been producing seeds in the state of Tasmania for over 30 years. External beekeepers helped us with pollination until we got our own bees in 2015. Maintaining our own apiary gives us more control and enables us to build up knowledge and experience. Our specialists in the field notice the difference, as do the growers we partner with for seed production. The apiary also provides pollination services to third parties. “Our service goes beyond delivering and collecting the hives,” Mick says. “We operate as a professional service provider with expertise in crops and seed production. We discuss optimal placement and advise on the best time for pollination, and on bee nutrition if necessary. Our main concern is seed yield and quality rather than maximum honey yield.”
Business is buzzing
Within a few short years, Tasmanian Pollination Services has grown into one of Australia’s largest beekeeping operations. The number of hives has doubled annually and now stands at 4,500. The hives are divided among 4 units. Three providepollination services for Bejo and other parties in their respective regions of Tasmania. They are isolated from each other to safeguard biosecurity. The fourth unit is used for rearing queens. We replace the queens in our bee populations every 2 years to keep our pollinators performing at a high level.The business unit employs a total of 10 people. Besides Mick, there are 4 lead beekeepers, each responsible for a unit, and 5 beekeepers. The beekeepers work closely with a Bejo agronomist, who provides cultivation and seed productionexpertise.
Honey would normally be a primary source of income for an apiary. But since Tasmanian Pollination Services focuses on pollination for the purpose of improving seed production, the amount of honey produced isn't optimal. Additional revenues are welcomed, however. “We want the operation to be cost-neutral at least,” says Chris Bone, General Manager of Bejo Australia. “A small profit would be nice, because we need to invest in the continuation and development of the business.”
That's why the apiary also provides service to third parties. Hives are placed in cherry and apple orchards at the beginning of spring – September in the southern hemisphere. During the season, bees are hired to producers of fennel seed and canola grown for the purpose of making oil. They can also be used in the production of the famous Australian manuka (tea tree) and leatherwood honeys.
The sale of nucleus colonies and queens is another potential source of income. The Australian bee population is free of the varroa mite and related viruses. Exports could be profitable, as varroa mites are a serious problem worldwide. International trade is restricted, however. Fortunately, Canada does allow exports from Australia.
The international Bee Group
The Australian beekeeping unit isn’t the only one. Bejo uses bees intensively in other seed production areas around the world. We have our own apiaries in countries such as France and the Netherlands and work with partners in countries including the USA and New Zealand. The specialists in these areas keep in touch through Bejo’s international Bee Group. They share experiences, coordinate research and maintain contact with scientific institutes. Through amassing knowledge and working on innovations, we aim to make seed production more efficient and sustainable while supporting bee conservation and protection.
Environmentally friendly cultivation
The role natural pollinators play in our business makes us especially aware of agriculture’s relationship to natural resources and biodiversity. We are committed to making conventional cultivation methods more sustainable. We have also set ourselves the goal of stepping up our production and breeding of seeds for organic farming.
Our experience with pollination has taught us a lot about environmentally friendly cultivation methods. “We take insects into account,” Chris says. “For the control of diseases and pests, we use as few chemical agents as possible. And if we use them, they need to be safe for the natural insect population.”
Here come the hoverflies
Tasmanian Pollination Services is working on an exciting new development: the introduction of hoverflies, not to replace the bees but to support them. “Hoverflies will never replace honeybees, because bees are much more efficient pollinators,” says Mick. “But they can complement each other. Bees prefer the higher parts of the plant, while flies usually seek out the lower parts. The two species also have their own preferences with regard to weather. When it's cold, the bees stay in the hive, but the flies keep on working.”
It goes to show that nature is an endless source of inspiration. Here, as in so many of Bejo's activities,