Meet Kyneton’s Claire Moore – a 2019 Victorian finalist* in the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award. She has been recognised for her plan to boost bee populations via artificial insemination.
As a beekeeper for the past 12 years, Claire is only too aware that bee numbers across the world are on the wane, with disease, insecticides and pesticides the most likely culprits. Such a decline has worrying implications for global food production, as honey bees are crucial to the harvest of many crops, pollinating one in every four spoonfuls of food we eat.
Beehive numbers are monitored by studying the number of hives that die out, usually over a winter when food is scarce, Claire explains. A 10 per cent reduction of hives during winter is considered sustainable. However, some countries in the Northern Hemisphere have sustained losses as large as 18 per cent and that rate of hive loss, Claire asserts, needs to be decreased. She hopes to address this by breeding healthy queen bees.
It’s an appropriate approach as we have the healthiest bees on the planet. "Australia has the most disease-free bees in the world; we’re the only country left that doesn’t have the varroa mite," says Claire, speaking about the invasive virus threatening the bee industry. "Our border security is world class, but it remains a risk that the varroa mite will arrive and the best chance of Australia's honey industry surviving its arrival is to have genetically-strong bees that are as disease-resistant as possible. I believe the best way we can weather the storm to this is by artificially inseminating queen bees to cross them for different traits, such as disease resistance, high yields and pollination abilities."
While artificial insemination is common in other industries to breed animals with select traits – the dairy industry, for example has been using this method to increase yield since the 1960s – it has never been used in bee colonies. In fact, Claire, who raises cows and poultry as well as bees, stumbled upon the idea by chance. "We were looking at buying semen straws to inseminate one of our cows as we didn’t have the right fencing to get a bull in," she says. "That got me thinking about bees, so I searched online and found an article that mentioned it was a new technology for bees. I knew then it was something that I wanted to learn."
To achieve her goal, Claire is studying queen bee breeding at NSW’s Tocal College. She is also purchasing queen bees with suitable genetic traits from other Australian beekeepers. These queen bees are selected to boost beehive health and sustainability, as well adaptability to a variety of climates.
To help fund her queen bee purchases, she’s establishing a hive share program where people can sponsor a hive for a year. "They can visit the farm, come to beehive building days, open the hive with assistance and learn how to spin out honey,” she says. For the sponsors: “It’s an experience of being a beekeeper for a year. At the end of the year, I keep the hive to make new queen bees and they have the option of sponsoring a new hive. I’ll also be running introduction to beekeeping courses throughout the year for those interested in having their own hive at home."
Additional funding to buy the queen bees will come from boosting her hive numbers to a commercial level (from 20 to 100 by the end of this year) so she can produce and sell honey-related products such as soap and candles.
This year is the first time Claire has applied for the AgriFutures Rural Women’s Awards, and she is pleased to be one of three Victorian finalists. "Through the process, I’ve met many strong, passionate and talented women who, with their wealth of experience, are changing rural Australia for the better. I think the judges will have a hard time deciding a winner!"
*UPDATE (April 2019): Claire Moore was recognised as the 2019 Victorian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award winner in March. She will have the opportunity to become the national winner when the announcement is made in Canberra this September.