The recent arrival of 20 breeder queen bees in Fiji from Australia has marked a major milestone in an ACIAR-funded project effort that aims to improve the productivity and profitability of smallholder beekeepers. The research effort includes a genetic improvement program, collaborative activities for regional honey bee biosecurity, improved market access, and the creation of opportunities to better support the economic empowerment of women and youth in beekeeping industries.
The 4-year project is led by Southern Cross University (SCU) and works across Papua New Guinea and Fiji in partnership with local agricultural ministries and beekeeping associations.
Project Leader from SCU, Dr Cooper Schouten said that bees are crucial to pollination-dependent horticultural industries and can be an excellent way of making money without exacerbating environmental degradation.
‘Often, when people think about bees, they think about honey, but bees have much more to offer than just honey! Honey bees contribute significantly to GDP through pollination services, providing around a third of the food we eat,' said Dr Schouten.
‘Beekeeping has a negligible carbon footprint and honey bees produce wax and propolis, which can be developed into profitable products. Bee products have important health properties, and honey doesn't readily spoil, so it can be sold in times of financial hardship.
'Also, beekeeping doesn't require access to secure land tenure, which can be a major problem for rural families,’ explained Dr Schouten.
‘The beekeeping industries in the Pacific have a lot to offer with strong domestic demand for honey and with increasing quality and capabilities, there is potential for export markets.
'Despite the benefits, attrition amongst beekeeping adopters is a chronic issue, and honey production, profitability and technical skills among farmers remain underdeveloped. Additionally, economically significant honey bee pests threaten the continued viability of the sector and the subsequent ability for bees to support pollination-dependent horticultural crops.
‘Families cannot be expected to run profitable beekeeping businesses after being donated hives and given a week of training. Bees, like other livestock, are not happy and productive if they are left in a field; they become a biosecurity problem and a financial burden,’ said Dr Schouten.
‘Our team’s research and training exemplify approaches to support organisations to implement effective beekeeping programs that grow inclusive family businesses and strengthen Pacific beekeeping industries.
‘In addition to biosecurity and pest and disease management, understanding honey bee nutrition and genetics are critical to success. Defensive bees are not that fun to work with and impede good hive management,’ added Dr Schouten.
Honey bees can be bred for various traits, including colour, temperament, and production, and similarly to laying hens, queen bees don't lay eggs productively forever.
Dr Schouten explained that regular requeening of bee colonies is vital to maintaining healthy productive hives and that young quality queen bees are critical to beekeeping business profitability and production. The research shows young queens produce significantly more honey and have substantially lower swarming tendencies than older queens.
‘The English black bees (Apis mellfiera mellifera) originally introduced into the Pacific bee industries in the mid-1900s have become less desirable compared to genetically improved stock from other regions. The recent importation of Italian bees (Apis mellifera ligustica) is a great steppingstone to improved genetics for Fiji promising higher production and gentler bees. This will mean more honey, more money, fewer stings, more fun, and greater knowledge retention while learning.
‘These bees are Fiji's first imported queens in more than 20 years. Understanding how Australian bees perform under Fijian conditions with pests like varroa mites also gives us insights into how our bees may respond at home, and the best biosecurity detection, monitoring, and management practices in the future,’ added Dr Schouten.
Australia is the only continent where varroa destructor—an external parasitic mite that attacks and feeds on the honey bees—is not yet endemic. The threat of the continued spread of the current incursion remains high.
Fiji’s Minister for Agriculture, the Honourable Dr Mahendra Reddy, said that Fiji has the perfect climatic conditions for beekeeping to thrive.
‘We have demonstrated our commitment to the beekeeping industry with funding to support the sector. These imported queen bees from Australia have high honey production potential and are a docile breed with the ability to fight some pests and diseases,’ said Dr Reddy.
Dr Schouten added that the bee project, in partnership with the Fiji Ministry of Agriculture, the Fiji Beekeepers Association (FBA), and the Biosecurity Authority of Fiji was also working with extension officers, the private sector and rural beekeepers to enhance capacity through various research and training activities.
‘Capacity building with and for local people is vital to the long-term success and strategic growth of the Fijian beekeeping industry, and these skills and knowledge are an asset to all neighbouring beekeeping industries in the region.
‘We are working with the key beekeeping organisations in Fiji to enhance our capacity in queen bee breeding, stock evaluation, pests and disease management, improved access to local markets, and value-adding to bee products.
‘The team is working to build the capacity of local beekeepers to become instructors to provide outcome-based training in introductory and advanced beekeeping, value-added products, and queen bee breeding as part of their bee business,’ added Dr Schouten.
FBA President, Mr Nilesh Kumar said the association was grateful for the assistance SCU, ACIAR and the government departments provided.
‘Beekeeping in Fiji would not be able to flourish without the support that we are receiving, the sharing of technical and scientific research from our partners, and the constant upskilling from the ACIAR-supported training.
‘Through the training, beekeepers are learning how to requeen hives, value-adding of by-products, and marketing,’ added Mr Kumar.
Mr Kumar is a commercial beekeeper and is one of the local trainers who work with beekeepers on queen bee breeding.
‘The Fijian bee industry is very excited about the arrival of the Australian queen bees. We have been trying for more than 10 years to achieve this, and now we can introduce new genetic diversity to the beehives, which will make them more productive,’ he said.
He added that the industry had seen an increase in beekeepers during the pandemic.
‘At the height of the pandemic, Fijians were looking for ways to supplement their incomes, and many people took an interest in beekeeping. The FBA is working with beekeepers around the country, providing relevant training and materials.’
ACIAR Research Program Manager for Livestock Systems, Dr Anna Okello, believes beekeeping has excellent potential to improve rural livelihoods, and that improved biosecurity could have a significant role in the performance of regional bee industries more broadly, including in Australia.
‘Strengthening linkages between Australian researchers and industry groups and our partners in the Pacific has the potential to improve the biosecurity status and capabilities in the broader region. It is critical that the important role of bees in agricultural productivity, food production and livelihoods is not forgotten in regional agricultural discourse.
‘The arrival of the Australian queen bees for Fijian beekeepers is an important step towards a more resilient and productive national beekeeping industry in Fiji,’ added Dr Okello.
Learn more about the project via the ACIAR website.