Almond pollination is now buzzing in Victoria.
This month, about 110,000 rented bee hives from Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland will travel by truck to pollinate Victoria’s almond blossom regions.
The hives are an essential part of what is a huge business. Victoria’s growing almond industry is worth a hefty $380 million annually. About 49,000 tonnes – worth $314 million – was exported to about 40 countries last year alone. After grapes, almonds are Victoria's second largest horticultural export, making up about 27 per cent of total horticulture exports.
Currently, 68 per cent of Australia’s almond production comes from Victoria. Plantings stretch from Swan Hill to Lindsay Point on the South Australian border. But the highest concentration is grown at Robinvale, a town on the south bank of the Murray River where the Mediterranean-style weather provides ideal growing conditions.
Almond growing season begins in early August and lasts for about six weeks. "It starts with winter chill required to achieve high flower numbers when the trees burst into bloom," says Ross Skinner, CEO of the Almond Board of Australia. "Flowers need to be cross pollinated by European honey bees moving pollen from different varieties planted in alternate rows in an almond orchard."
The lead up and undertaking of harvest – from January to April – is the busiest period, but the size of the crop to be harvested in 2020 greatly depends on the bees being busy during August.
Demand is so strong that some large orchards rent bees from several beekeepers to provide their required hive total. "The number of hives are built up during the bloom period to match flower density so that food for the bees is available and then they’re gradually removed from the orchards as the density of flowers thins," Ross explains. "This ensures bees leave in a healthy condition to move onto either other pollination duties or to honey production."
To ensure adequate bee numbers, the Almond Board of Australia is working with honey bee associations to support new entrants and to develop existing businesses. One of the major concerns being addressed is access to adequate floral resources, much of which exists in state and national parks.
Almond producers, says Ross, are acutely aware of the need for only healthy hives being on their properties. "Australian beekeepers have a code of practice: it’s being legislated in Victoria and NSW and it’s already code in South Australia," he says.
"In addition to the beekeepers testing for disease and using only healthy hives for pollination, the industry is looking to invest in non-intrusive technologies that will confirm the high health status of hives on property to ensure producers are getting what they’re paying for and that other beekeepers hives aren’t being put at risk."
The expansion of the almond industry in Victoria has been a rapid one with the vast majority of orchards planted in the past 15 years leading to a corresponding growth in demand for pollination services. In fact, over 150,000 hives will be needed in the future as the almond industry edges towards a farmgate production value of $1 billion in Victoria and $2 billion nationally.