*Kootingal apiarist Ray Hull (Photo: Rhiannon Soliman-Marron)

UTS Journalism students travelled to Tamworth in the week the New England and North West regions finally saw rain. It was a welcome sound and sight for local producers, as Kirsten Jelinek writes.

Kootingal, NSW New England/North West

KOOTINGAL: The deafening downpour falls hard against the tin roof. It’s a sound the town of Kootingal hasn’t heard in weeks.

“It’s a good thing you’ve brought the rain with you,” Ray Hull says as he wipes droplets from his glasses and turns on the lights in his shed.

The aroma of fresh honey invites you in, lingering in every corner.

On wooden crates sit rectangular blocks of beeswax, stacked half a metre high. On the front and back walls are large plastic containers filled with litres of “liquid gold”. Each container is branded with black spray paint that reads, “Hull’s Honey Farm”.

But the business has seen better days.

Honey bee populations are in steep decline, with mass losses reported across the globe. In the last 30 years, international beekeepers have reported annual hive losses averaging 30 per cent. In the United States, beekeepers lost around 40 per cent of their colonies between April 2018 and April 2019. These numbers are expected to decline further.

There are more than 1500 commercial beekeeping businesses in Australia and they’re experiencing the same decline in productivity.

Ray Hull’s been a commercial beekeeper in Kootingal, which is about 17kms from Tamworth, for 30 years. He took after after his grandfather, who showed him the ropes.

Despite his bee population remaining steady, overall honey production has taken a beating: “We haven’t lost bees yet, but they’re not as strong, they’re not as productive”.

He’s now down to 50 per cent of his 2018 output.

“This is the first time in our life that we haven’t made quota for our honey supply.

“Two years ago, we were producing 33 IBCs (intermediate bulk containers) of honey for a 12 month period, and we were taking 400 hives to almond pollination. Whereas this year we still have 400 hives, but we’ve probably done 15 IBCs of honey… if that.

“The bees aren’t as healthy as they should be. They’re stressed, they’re always hungry. The whole aspect of beekeeping is really hard at the moment.”

Mr Hull’s had to transport 400 hives thousands of kilometres to protect those he has left. Currently, his bees are in Wollongong and on the Central Coast because Tamworth’s ongoing drought stopped flowers from blooming.

For the majority of bee colonies, numbers deplete due to a disease called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). According to the Wheen Bee Foundation, CCD is the mass disappearance of worker honey bees from the hive, leaving the queen and immature bees behind.

CCD is the result of the compound effect of habitat destruction, the use of pesticides on crops, diseases such as the varroa mite and climate change.

These factors all contribute to the decline in bee population and productivity.

(Video: Sidney Boen)

When there is no honey, there is a domino effect along the production line.

“Our wax production is down by half, if not more [and while] the price of honey is good… we’ve got none, so it doesn’t really matter”.

Australia’s beekeeping industry contributes $19 billion to agricultural and horticultural industries. But along with the decline in active hives, comes a 25 per cent reduction in the number of commercial beekeepers.

Mr Hull says the drought was a big factor but then the bushfires presented another obstacle for bees looking for something to pollinate.

“That’s our biggest problem – trying to find resources for bees. We’ve had to move three loads of bees four times because the fires have burnt all the resources around them.

“If it’s not burnt, it’s in drought.”

Tamworth is now in its third year of drought, with the region still on Level 5 water restrictions. Before the recent rain, several dry seasons coupled with rising temperatures, meant the majority of local flora failed to blossom, which has affected the current harvest.

“Once upon a time, you could say ‘we’ll go to the white box, then go to the almonds, then to the canola’. But none of those trees have buds on them.”

Mr Hull says it’ll take years before his business gets back to normal.

“We’re just living day to day … there’s no long term plan. The drought we’ve been having for the last three years will affect us for another seven or eight years.”

When asked if things were going to improve for Hull’s Honey Farm, he smiles.

“It’s always going to get better, always. Next year is going to be good.”

Ray Hull’s optimism may have been rewarded with rain for the first time in months, but it’s not enough to quench the thirst of a drought-ridden landscape, and won’t see Tamworth buzzing with more of his bees, just yet.

— Kirsten Jelinek @_jelinek