Search Site

Keeping bees buzzing

As an agricultural company, we have a first-hand understanding of the vital role bees and other insects play in our food system and in our own global supply chains.

There has been increasing publicity recently on the declining populations of bees around the world and the effect this will have: a third of the food we eat depends on pollinating insects, and in 2005 it was estimated that the “total economic value of pollination worldwide amounted to €153 billion, which represented 9.5% of the value of the world agricultural production used for human food”*.

We therefore balance the risk of combatting pests and disease with careful use of pesticides.  We have made a commitment to limit our use of WHO Class IA and IB chemicals to exceptional circumstances where no alternatives are available, and have implemented a control plan for rarely used Class II chemicals (including neonicotinoids) in our own upstream operations through our Plantations, Concessions and Farms Code, and among our farmer suppliers through our Supplier Code.  In many of our smallholder training programmes we are teaching Integrated Pest Management techniques, where the growing of certain types of plants attract or deter insects and pests.  See also our section on Food Safety in this Report.

Working with expert partners to better understand bee behaviour

Pollination during the bloom period is key to a good yield in almond orchards. While bees can forage for nectar and pollen over large distances, they prefer to do so closer to the hive (within 350 meters). In Olam’s operations in Victoria, Australia, where over 12,000 hectares are planted with three million almond trees, we require more than 80,000 hives with some 30,000 bees per hive, a total of 2.4 billion bees. As the local supply of bees is insufficient, Olam therefore transports bee hives from Queensland and New South Wales at the beginning of the blooming period. As bees come under the legislated laws of livestock movements inter-state in Australia, this makes Olam one of the largest transporters of livestock in the country.

As we all know, bee health is cause for concern and there is a pressing need to understand the bee ecosystem in order to understand some of the more important factors that could potentially affecting the behaviour of bees (including understanding of flight patterns), the impact of activities on the farm (e.g., application of pesticides, irrigation) and changes in the environment (e.g., droughts, excessive rain, wind, other weed/grass species for flower source and noise).  Not only does this help to maximise the ability of the bees to pollinate well, and encourage future generations of bees, but it also potentially reduces our reliance on so many hives.

Olam is therefore working with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to identify a solution that delivers: (a) a system for monitoring bee activity; and (b) an analytics, data query and visualisation system for data comprehension.

The system for monitoring bee activity is based on CSIRO’s unique insect RFID tag, a 5.4 mg device measuring 2.5 x 2.5 x 0.4 mm, fitted to the bee. The systems includes an RFID tag reader installed in the bee hive, able to log the entrance and exit of all honey bees that are equipped with the sensor backpack, and a scale for monitoring hive weight change. CSIRO currently tracks up to 5,000 bees in Tasmania using this technology. Data comprehension is based on statistical analysis and machine learning techniques, while visualisation could range from simple 2D presentation of statistics on a screen to overlaying data presented in 3D space and over a virtual image of the orchards.

Other partners supporting us include Monson Honey, Doug Somerville (Technical Specialist Honey Bees, New South Wales Department of Primary Industries) and AgEconPlus.

In addition to this research, we are also looking at which plants we can grow within the almond orchards that will complement bee activity and bee health.

* Study by INRA, CNRS and UFZ

Image: bee keeper in Australia for our almond orchards.

Next section: Protecting apes and elephants