Patsavee Utaippanon and Michael Holmes are researching where bees come from with genotype technology.
Patsavee Utaippanon and Michael Holmes are researching where bees come from with genotype technology. Contributed

Bee study up, up and away

A NET filled with pheromone-soaked 'dummy queens', a large helium balloon and a team of scientists.

When these things are combined new knowledge about where farmers' bees come from can be discovered.

In a joint initiative by AgriFutures Australia, the Federal Government and HortInnovation, new research has been rolled out around Australia as part of four-year project, "assessing honey bee colony densities at landscape scales”.

The research aims to give growers an insight into where their bees are coming from - feral colonies or through managed hives - and how effective those sources are.

University of Sydney researcher Dr Michael Holmes said the work could determine how many bees were in an area of up to a 1km radius, helping growers identify whether there were enough bees to pollinate a crop adequately.

"Large-scale farms often bring in paid pollination services. This work will tell us if those services are sufficient or if growers need more bees to ensure the right level of pollination,” Dr Holmes said.

"Through this research, we can also identify if the bees are from managed hives or if they are coming from the feral colonies that are nearby.”

Dr Holmes said after male bees were attracted to the 'dummy queens' in the net fixed to the helium balloon, his team then genotyped them.

"Once we have captured the bees, we analyse them to work out if they are related or not by determining if they have the same queen bee mother. There is only one queen per colony, so from that, we can work out how many colonies are in the sample area, which is about a 1km radius.”

Costa Berries horticultural manager for the berry category, Andrew Scheuer, said the work was important because pollination was critical to the adequate production of berries, but there were still a lot of unknowns.

"The European honeybee is a tool that we use, but we don't really understand a lot about it,” he said.

"With further understanding, our production outcomes could certainly benefit.”

Hort Innovation chief executive John Lloyd said the research and development corporation set up a dedicated Pollination Fund last year to help the horticulture industry meet challenges around pollination.

"It can be easy to take current pollination processes and practices for granted,” Mr Lloyd said. "But with growing global concern about bee health and new, exciting advancements in science, the industry is now able to focus its efforts on exploring what's impacting bees, and how we can pollinate more effectively using methods that we may have overlooked in the past.”

In Australia, pollination-dependant crops have been estimated to be worth more than $4.3billion per annum based on 2005-2006 data, with the direct contribution by honeybees (Apis mellifera) estimated to be more than $1.6billion.

The bee balloon research is part of a broader pollination project that involves the investigation of the pollinator contributions to nine crops including almond, lucerne seed, apple, pear, berries, mango, melon and canola. Researchers are also looking to re-establish native vegetation to support pollinator food and nesting resources to optimise crop yield and strengthen pollination security.