Beekeeper keen to tell his blueberry story
BEEKEPPER Ben Laybutt has contacted the Advocate in response to an article last month in which a fifth-generation honey producer claimed he was being pushed to the brink by the rapid increase in blueberry farms in the region.
Mr Laybutt has kept bees for 15 years and in recent times has turned his focus to providing a pollination service for the rapidly expanding berry industry.
He says the same bees that provide pollination can also be used for producing honey if managed properly.
"There's quite a negative take on the blueberry industry and I'm concerned it's getting bad press in regards to bees but it's not a bad story. I wanted to represent myself and others who put them with blueberries and don't have the same problem," Mr Laybutt said.
"Blueberries and blueberry growing doesn't kill our bees.
Previously growers relied largely on natural or "incidental" pollination, but more and more growers are recognising the value of professional pollinators and Mr Laybutt says it's a growth industry.
"Some pollinators tell me to shut up about it and to keep it to ourselves. The demand is rapidly growing and it's getting harder to meet that demand," he said.
Relying on incidental pollination can also be a risky business warns Mr Laybutt.
"When, and I don't think it's if, the Varroa mite comes, all those feral pollinators will disappear so if a grower is relying on that free service they're not going to get it any more."
The Varroa mite, described as the honeybees' greatest threat, is an exotic deadly parasite of the European honey bee, which has spread to all inhabited continents except Australia.
In June last year the mites were found in a small colony of European honey bees on a ship berthed at the Port of Melbourne.
Fortunately the captain noticed dead bees on board before arriving in Australia. In accordance with quarantine protocol authorities were notified and the colony killed.
With farmers successfully trialling different plant species to extend the season Mr Laybutt has an increasingly busy schedule.
"Twenty years ago the season only really ran from June to August but now growers are getting fruit to market almost all year round."
Currently he pollinates nearly 200 hectares of blueberries across several farms and says it's been a gradual process to build up trust with blueberry farmers who predominantly come from an Indian background.
"It's a cultural thing. I am open and up front, but they keep to themselves - they're not out there promoting themselves, it's not in their culture to. It's taken a while to build up trust, but it's there."
He says farmers have been willing to compromise like moving to the use of black netting.
As for the future there are some concerns in relation to the boom in farms and longer production period.
"The market is tightening a little bit so everybody is looking at ways to maximising things. Last year the price dropped quite low.
"I think the bigger more efficient producers will survive but for the smaller ones on steep land on old banana farms for example it might be a different story."
In addition to providing a pollinating service he breeds nucleus hives (like starter kits) for other apiarists.