Things are looking pretty sweet for WA’s honey industry.
Premium varieties exclusive to our state like jarrah and marri are finally getting the international recognition they deserve, investment in infrastructure is increasing and interest in beekeeping is exploding.
Farm gate prices are also edging toward their true value with some jarrah honey fetching $30/kg.
In the past decade it’s been as low as $3/kg.
Training is improving to ensure the ageing industry, where the majority of apiarists are nearing retirement, doesn’t collapse on itself because of a lack of workers.
In April the newly formed Beekeeping Training College of WA, an arm of the WA Bee Industry Council, began offering certificate III qualifications in beekeeping for both professionals and amateurs.
This buzz isn’t just coming from the bees; it’s the result of a concerted effort by all the players to improve every facet of the industry from production to marketing.
WA’s ‘monofloral’ honeys – those made using one flower like jarrah and marri – are so alluring because of their proven antibacterial and antimicrobial activity.
The thick, dark, and non-crystallising jarrah honey is one of the healthiest in the world, even outperforming the wildly popular New Zealand manuka variety.
The healthiness of our bees and the pristine environments they inhabit are also attractive aspects to honey hungry markets like China, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.
One of the best moves the industry made was partnering with state-owned chemistry analysis lab Chem Centre in 2016 to develop an accreditation process that finally placed a scientific value on WA’s unique products.
Chem Centre have developed an accurate method of tracing the floral content of a honey by performing a combination of chemical analysis and testing the DNA of the pollen found within it.
Ken Dods is Chem Centre’s lead food scientist and has headed the project from the beginning.
He said the industry-led push for accreditation has had a massive impact on the future of WA’s industry.
He said the producers used to sell blended honeys at business-killing low prices but now it's a profitable sector that is attracting not just export interest, but investment too.
“We’ve had quite a few international buyers come through, probably 40 in the past two years into WA looking to invest in the industry,” he said.
“We’ve gone from a single processing facility to now five major processing facilities, most of them from international investment.
“We continue to hear from the international marketplace of the importance of traceability and certification of product as it leaves WA, particularly in places like China where the emerging middle income group want products that are traceable.
“Some of their honey has 80 per cent substitution and dilution so accreditation lets their salespeople say ‘we’re selling a legitimate product’.”
This overseas interest in WA’s liquid gold has increased farmgate prices, which is increasing interest from amateur beekeepers.
In WA a jarrah crop can produce up to 500 tonnes, which has the potential to make producers up to $15 million.
The easier to harvest marri variety can fetch up to $20/kg at the farm gate.
Mr Dods said WA’s amateur beekeeping association has jumped from 300 members to 1600 in three years.
Chem Centre is trying to make life easier for beekeepers by researching things like drone and satellite surveys of jarrah and marri floral blooms to help pinpoint when and where beekeepers should be setting up their hives.
Mr Dods said they are also helping develop a series of intelligent hive concepts allowing apiarists to monitor the weight, temperature, security and health of the hive from their mobile phone.
“It means they don’t have to drive backwards and forwards to their hives two to three times a week,” he said.
There is also a project looking at improving the honey supply chain by replacing the current paper based system with a radio frequency ID system, similar to that used by the cattle industry.
Unlocking the potential
The future of WA’s honey industry is so well regarded that in November last year the federal government provided $7 million to set up a honey bee products cooperative research centre at the University of WA.
Over the next five years the centre will also receive almost $20 million from industry and other unis.
The centre’s chief executive Liz Barbour said their work will resolve issues limiting the value and expansion of the wider Australian honey bee industry, which includes honey, beeswax, pollen, jelly, venom and export of bees themselves.
Dr Barbour says another goal is to educate the wider community on just how important the honey bee industry is to every other area of farming.
“What is often overlooked is that 44 of our food crops wholly or in part rely on honey bee pollination which adds an additional farm gate value of $6.5 billion,” she said.
“If a major bee disease arrived in Australia, there would be a 26 per cent decline in national agricultural production, which equates to a consumer surplus loss of between $12.4 billion and $27.2 billion.”
The centre is hosting a ‘honey hackathon’ on May 18 to 20 to discuss the business of honey and develop ways to build the industry and enter untapped honey bee product markets.
Honey tourism will be discussed at length which Dr Barbour says has huge potential.
“We can use honey and other honey bee products to bring in tourists from places like China where they want to come and see where and how the produce is made,” she said.
Promising times not without risk
Leilani Leyland and her husband have owned their honey business Bees Neez Apiaries for 35 years and so they’ve seen the industry’s transformation better than most.
Mrs Leyland, who is also the WA Farmers beekeeping section president, said they have seen interest in WA honey explode but it is still a tough slog.
She said their bees were facing pressure from logging in the south west and constant prescribed burns, both of which decimate floral blooms.
“This season coming up, October to January would effectively be a jarrah flowering season but all of the commercial beekeepers have received notices telling us they’re going to burn," she said.
“A lot of these sites aren’t even near public housing and there isn’t anything we can do about it.
“The logging is also frustrating, at least when a beekeeper goes into a forest they actually leave the it in better condition than before they went in.”
The threat of the bee-destroying varroa mite also constantly plays in the back of Mrs Leyland’s mind.
The mite has decimated hives across the globe by interrupting a bee’s development while it is larvae.
They also carry viruses which destroy entire hives.
Australia and in particular WA is free of the mite but Mrs Leyland says without constant vigilance it will infiltrate hives and hurt not only the honey industry but most of the rest of the agricultural landscape, which relies on pollination from bees.
Despite these challenges Mrs Leyland said she loves her job and their business.
“After 35 years we’ve built a strong business, we’ve had some tough years where we’ve had to get a second job just to support ourselves but a passion for making good honey and keeping healthy bees kept us going," she said.
For more information on the Honey Hackathon visit www.crchoneybeeproducts.com/honey-hackathon/.
Hamish Hastie is a Fairfax Media business reporter writing from the WAtoday offices in Perth. He was raised in Armadale in Perth's south east and covered the area for four years at the Examiner Newspaper before a stretch writing for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA's business magazines.