The federal government has agreed with a Senate committee recommendation to use Tasmania’s feral bumblebee populations for a two-year trial for pollination purposes in protected cropping production systems.
The inquiry sought to find out the risks and opportunities from using the state’s bumblebee population for commercial horticultural purposes.
It noted there was interest within the state’s industry to use bumblebees to pollinate certain crops, like greenhouse tomatoes.
Tasmania is the only Australian state where bumble bees have become established. The bees were accidentally, or illegally, introduced in 1992 and, within 14 years, had spread throughout the state.
Bumblebees are less affected by adverse and cooler weather conditions, like those experienced in Tasmania, than honey bees and thus are more effective for pollination.
Experts from the University of Tasmania said international research on the use of bumblebees, rather than honey bees, for pollination had increased the yield for glasshouse crops that grew tomatoes, capsicum, eggplant, cucumber, raspberries and strawberries.
Former Tasmanian Primary Industries Minister Jeremy Rockliff told the inquiry the government believed they could offer an advantage for pollination purposes as there was no feasible opportunity for eradication.
“They are used in many other countries for pollination and the Tasmanian government supports a cautiously and carefully run trial with a Tasmanian commercial tomato farmer,” he said.
North-west Tasmanian tomato grower, Marcus Brandsema, said he manually pollinates his tomato plants three times a week using a repurposed leaf blower.
“By using bumblebees for pollination, we don’t have to manually pollinate our plants, and that not only gives us a yield increase but also a labour saving,” he said.
“Also, bumblebees set the fruit more effectively, so each individual fruit has more seed in it so that means that it has slightly increased weight. Combined with a better setting, that means growers could achieve a yield increase between 10 and 20 per cent at a lower cost.”
Mr Brandsema said the bumblebees would be contained within his glasshouses.
The trial will require amendments to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act which the government has agreed to. The first stage of the trial will test if bumble bees caught in the wild can pollinate tomatoes effectively. If this is successful, a second stage will look at a breeding program. The final stage will review the outcomes and identify any potential adverse environmental impacts.