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Bee Friendly Farming at Macadamia Farm Management

With a PhD in the diets of honey bees and more than a decade spent studying entomology and agricultural ecology, Dr Chris Cannizzaro says his science background has equipped him for his current role as the horticulturist for one of the country’s largest macadamia farming organisation as horticulture becomes more data driven and conscious of its ecological impact.

Macadamia Farm Management manages 5,000 hectares of macadamia orchards across over 60 properties throughout Queensland, with Dr Cannizzaro tending to more than 1.5 million trees, with new trees coming into production each year.

“Trees go hand-in-hand with bees,” Dr Cannizzaro said. “Most of my research has been centred around the interactions between bees and trees, and it’s been exciting to apply my research background to new challenges in macadamia pollination, crop protection and cultivation.”

 One of MFM’s properties is the PHC Property Trust farm at Gin Gin in Queensland’s Bundaberg region. The orchard covers about 350 hectares, with more than 100,000 macadamia trees ranging from two to five years old. Pollination takes place from September through to October.

“Each year we bring in about two to five honey bee hives per hectare,” Dr Cannizzaro says. “It’s normally about two hives per hectare for the younger trees, but as they get mature, they put on more flower and require more bees for better pollination.”

It’s a major operation for the farm management team, with the placement of the hives critical to ensuring optimal pollination coverage throughout the orchard.

MFM also incorporates its own managed native stingless bee hives to boost pollination. And then there’s the feral honey bees and native bees which are in abundance on the farm, thanks to careful Integrated Pest Management.

This diversified approach to pollination is part of Dr Cannizzaro’s goal to improve yield and productivity and reduce pollination risks. It’s work that’s becoming more important, given the increasing challenges facing the beekeeping industry, including the recent arrival of varroa mite in New South Wales.   

“We know, with varroa mite possibly encroaching on us in Queensland, that we might be losing the free pollination services we normally get from the feral bees,” Dr Cannizzaro says. “It’s becoming a real issue and something that Macadamia Farm Management is really focussing on, to make sure we are set for the future.”

Leading the way on bees

As part of their ongoing focus on improving pollination, Macadamia Farm Management joined the Bee Friendly Farming program. Dr Cannizzaro and the team were among the first farm managers in Australia to have their properties certified through Bee Friendly Farming, which started in 2008 the US where it is managed by Pollinator Partnership, and introduced to Australia in 2020 by the Wheen Bee Foundation.

The Bee Friendly Farming program supports farmers to protect, preserve and promote the health of all pollinators. This in turn aims to help improve productivity and farm biodiversity, as well as help reduce pollination costs.

Certification shows a farm’s commitment to bees and their environment, sending a clear signal to domestic and export customers and consumers. Certification also informs beekeepers that, as a certified Bee Friendly Farm, the farm management team places a priority on bees. This is becoming more important as the demand for bees increases and beekeepers become more selective as to where they send their hives for pollination.

For Dr Cannizzaro, joining Bee Friendly Farming was an obvious move.

“One of the main reasons we became involved in Bee Friendly Farming was the assistance the program provided with our Integrated Pest Management,” Dr Cannizzaro said.

“It was also about the bigger picture. We have a strong belief in building pollination in a more natural and efficient way.”

To gain Bee Friendly Farming certification, farmers and land managers need to carry out farm management practices that support bees and other pollinators.

“We need to make sure that the bees have food and consistent water, we need to make sure they’re free of disease and protected from harmful pesticides or chemicals,” Dr Cannizzaro says.

On the farm at Gin Gin, MFM has undertaken bee-friendly planting programs on areas set aside areas specifically for bee flora.

“We are looking at areas along fence lines, creeklines and dams as well as places where we are not being particularly productive, and making sure they’re covered with bee-friendly flora plantings, so bees have access to a bit of diversity in their food.”

Macadamia Farm Management received a Bee Friendly Farming Tree grant, which has supported the bee-friendly planting program.

“We take care of the irrigation and the maintenance, and the grants contribute to the cost of the tube stock, so we are able to plant trees and extend the phenology, or flowering, throughout the year,” Dr Cannizzaro says.

“It gives our bees better access to floral resources, and builds them up so they are really strong for when the macadamia flowers come on.”

 Dr Cannizzaro says the health and safety of the bees needs to be properly considered, just like it does with any other living animal.

“We make sure any spraying operations that might be happening do not affect the bees and we make sure we place the hives in areas that aren’t going to be affected by machinery or equipment – you don’t want them getting dust blown all over them.

“We also work with other apiarists in the area because bees can spread diseases between colonies. We are especially aware of people coming up to the farm from areas that have varroa mite. We need to be alert and make sure everyone around us is aware of the issues.”

Dr Cannizzaro says care for the bees extends beyond Macadamia Farm Management’s farm boundaries. “On our farms, we have a duty of care to ensure bees providing pollination aren’t exposed to harmful chemicals, but we adjoin farming areas that might be growing fruit and vegetables and we know chemistries used on these farms could be harmful to insects. It’s just about talking with our neighbours to make sure we are all keeping our bees safe.”

Native stingless bees

Along with the 700-1,000 managed honey bee hives that arrive on the Gin Gin property each pollination season, Macadamia Farm Management is one of the few organisations in Australia to use managed native stingless bees, the Tetragonula species.

“We have several hundred native stingless bee hives that are housed on private properties in the suburbs around the area,” Dr Cannizzaro says.

“It’s something we’re really passionate about, bringing that native bee aspect in, in a managed way that is able to be done commercially.”

It’s a practice that’s rare in Australia but one that is common overseas.

“In South America and parts of Asia, the use of stingless bees is well established. It’s in its early stages here, we don’t have any queen bee or genetic breeding programs, but we are learning, and there is a lot of interesting research coming out of Australian universities.

Beyond the native stingless bees, Dr Cannizzaro is harnessing wild native bees and other positive insects to improve pollination.

“We’re trying to look more broadly at pollinators in general. There’s a lot of native bees in Queensland that occur naturally throughout this area – blue banded bees, reed bees, masked bees, resin and leafcutter bees, carpenter bees and many species of pollinating flies, wasps, beetles and butterflies.

“We want to encourage them to be in the area naturally, because we know the more diversity that you have access to, the better off you’ll be. If you’re just relying on one source of pollination, and that node snaps off, then it’s all gone.”

Data is the key

Dr Chris Cannizzaro admits it’s not easy to measure the impact of the work they are doing to support bees.

“It’s difficult to know what’s working,” he says. “The only way to know for certain is to set aside an orchard and have no bees, or set up exclusion netting, but that’s not really practical for us, and tree physiology and pollination of macadamia trees is fairly well established. The big knowledge gaps remain in the finer details, such as understanding what the correct stocking rates of bees and wild pollinators are and how these numbers relate to the maturity, varieties, and planting densities of an orchard.

“We do know from well-established research that if you don’t have good pollination you end up with low yields and undesirable fruit set.”

The MFM team is collecting orchard data so they can make more evidence-based decisions.

“I do pest inspections on all the producing orchards every two weeks from July to February-March and we record everything we see on the trees, including the types of beneficial insects, pests and pollinators,” Dr Cannizzaro says.

“We are also building heat maps showing yield across our orchards and overlaying that with the inspection data. Then we can create statistical models based on what we see.”

Dr Cannizzaro says the technology being used is taking farm reporting and decision making to a new level, with drones, apps, data collection and statistical modelling all driving more sustainable, productive and profitable enterprises.

“We’re looking to be more responsible, sustainable farmers in a climate where essentially your longevity depends on it,” he says. “And the consumer is really looking for it, so the fact that we can be certified Bee Friendly helps us to show we are in line with responsible practice.

“We feel a responsibility to make sure that we’re doing our best to bring Australia a good, clean, healthy macadamia crop.”

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