Urban beekeepers angered over government's poison plan

Vanessa Kwiatkowski and Mat Lumalasi with their hives on top of Federation Square.
Vanessa Kwiatkowski and Mat Lumalasi with their hives on top of Federation Square. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Urban honey producers are urging the state government to reconsider a plan to inject poison into some trees that could affect bee populations in suburban Melbourne.

The government intends to inject suburban trees with poison to eradicate Marchalina hellenica or the giant pine scale, to help protect the state's $1 billion softwood timber industry from the pest.

The giant pine scale is a parasitic insect, native to the Mediterranean and Russia, that has been responsible for the destruction of pine forests in its native countries. Infestations have been found at Mount Waverley and Harkaway near Narre Warren.

Urban beekeepers, a growing and vocal movement in Melbourne's food community, are "seriously concerned" for their future after the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources announced it would inject pine trees across a large swath of eastern and southern suburbs and the Dandenong Ranges with the chemical Imidacloprid. This is a potent neonicotinoid pesticide, which has been associated with the rapid decline in bee colonies in the northern hemisphere and banned by the European Union.

The process involves injecting the poison into affected pine trees; the insecticide is taken up by the sap of the trees and distributed throughout the plant. The insects then suck the sap and are poisoned. Beekeepers are fearful because the bees not only forage on resin secreted by trees but they can eat a sweet substance secreted by the scale called honeydew.

Beekeepers are furious about the lack of consultation, after getting a letter warning them to move their hives out of the designated Restricted Areas dated Wednesday, January 28 – just four days before the poisoning programme commenced on January 31. Urban beekeeper Matt Lumalasi, co-owner of Melbourne City Rooftop Honey, said: "They gave us only a few days to pull our hives out of the treated areas at one of our busiest times of the year."

Simon Mulvany from Save the Bees Australia said: "We're concerned that not only might the bees die, but they could take the poison back to the hive and contaminate other bees." He added: "We (urban beekeepers) are trying to create sustainable businesses. The department has known about this scale insect problem since at least last year, but seems to have rushed into poisoning. If we put a stop to the poisoning we wouldn't have to be scared about urban honey."

Other beekeepers we spoke to said that bees were unlikely to forage on pine trees as there are other more palatable sources of food available.

Gabrielle Vivian-Smith, chief plant health officer with the Department explained: "The department is trying to address the risk to bees by notifying beekeepers, and recommends beekeepers consider relocating their hives to another area during the treatment phase. The trees the department is  treating are not used for commercial food production."