Almond industry moves toward self-fertilizing future as varroa mite biosecurity threat analyzed

A Sunraysia farmer is “thanking his lucky stars” he was able to produce a commercial crop of almonds during a varroa mite outbreak in New South Wales this year after planting hundreds of self-fertilizing almond trees.

Changes to beehive permit regulations came in overnight, allowing Sunraysia beekeepers on the south side of the Murray River to move bees to the rest of the state from 12am this morning.

However, an interstate ban remains, preventing NSW beehives from entering Victoria.

Luke Englefield, 35, planted a nine-hectare self-pollinating almond farm on his Merbein South property seven years ago because he felt it was a risk to rely entirely on bees to pollinate his trees.

He and his wife Lucinda Englefield were rewarded for that decision this year when the shipment of beehives across the NSW border was halted two months ago due to the discovery of the destructive varroa mite.

Luke Englefield with mira and maximus almond trees.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Tamara Clark)

“For half of our orchard … every other row is a mirror, it’s a self-fertile Australian variety,” Mr Englefield said.

“The other variety is maximum, which is another Australian variety, but it requires cross-pollination.

“They were chosen because they were advanced, less risky, easier to find and hopefully more profitable species.”

Fresh almonds at Sunraysia farm
Luke Englefield with fresh-grown almonds at Sunraysia Farm.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Tamara Clark)

We still need bees

Mr Englewood still relies on some bees for pollination.

“One thing we discovered is that because of the sheer number of flowers, you still need to bring in bees. There will be billions of flowers, for example,” he said.

“But it might be a tenth of what the big farms towards Robinvale use.”

Mr. Englewood said it was more cost-effective to require fewer hives, especially when beekeepers raised prices for pollination services this year.

“There are others who can only pay inflation. They have paid 140 percent in addition,” he said.

“There are others who were able to pay 200 percent that suffered more than I did.”

According to Mr. Englefield, there are a number of other hazards that self-fertilizing trees minimize.

“Insects last year [carob moths] they were there [on the stock pad],” he said.

“It was a bit heartening to see these bugs showing up everywhere after two weeks.”

Mr Englefield said it was a sigh of relief to learn that these bugs did not infiltrate self-fertilising almonds.

“They just can’t penetrate the shell,” he said.

“If it was a regular variety, it would be more susceptible to damage and obviously impact your bottom line quite a bit.”

Almond board CEO Tim Jackson
Almond board chairman Tim Jackson says there is still a need for bees.(Credit: Tim Jackson)

Bees are still useful in agriculture

Almond council chief executive Tim Jackson said several farms were already using self-pollinating trees in their orchards and the council supported all research looking at “alternative ways of pollination”.

“Most overseas buyers or importers have a very traditional view of what species they prefer,” he said.

“But some of these other methods may become more cost-competitive as they go forward.”

CSIRO Senior Research Scientist John Roberts says that while self-fertilizing trees may be economical and sustainable, bees will still have a place in agriculture.

Dr John Roberts holds a beehive in front of green trees.
CSIRO researcher John Roberts says there will still be plenty of work for beekeepers.(Supply: John Roberts)

“It’s about getting a mix of things,” he said.

“Having the ability to not rely 100 percent on a large number of honeybees will be beneficial to everyone, so there are enough around.

“We need to have more pollinators locally … and we need to have really healthy and efficient honey bees.

“So it’s certainly about getting the balance right.”

Dr Roberts said a reduced need for bees for pollination would benefit the honey industry.

“Especially in Australia and many parts of the world, the main business for beekeepers is honey production,” he said.

“So if there is less demand for pollination, beekeepers will spend more time looking for honey.”

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