MYSTERY DEATH: Beekeepers Sandy Jeudwiner and Mark Fleming are dismayed to see the death of bees in the hives due to suspected poisoning.
MYSTERY DEATH: Beekeepers Sandy Jeudwiner and Mark Fleming are dismayed to see the death of bees in the hives due to suspected poisoning. Marc Stapelberg

Cause of mass bee death a mystery

EARLIER this month, Alstonville amateur beekeeper Mark Fleming managed to find a break in the rain, and went out to check on his beehives. What he found horrified him.

There were hundreds of dead and dying bees blanketing ground at the foot of his hives, with more appearing out of the hive with every passing second.

"They were just coming out of the hive and falling and dying,” Mr Fleming said.

"I didn't even think that it could be poison at first.”

After studying some of the dead bees, Mr Fleming started to notice recurring characteristics.

"Dying bees have been showing jerky movements, and have been falling on to their sides and back,” he said.

"Their proboscises have also been protruding, which is something that usually only happens while foraging.”

Following research online, Mr Fleming believes the bees had all been poisoned by chemical sprays or pesticides.

Mark soon discovered that his hives weren't the only ones affected.

Sandy Jeudwine and Michael Koenen live one kilometre away from Mark, and are fellow amateur beekeepers, and discovered their bees were dying too.

He believed that it may have been happening from a few days before, due to the amount of dead bees, but can't be sure.

The largest hives have been the ones hit most severely.

It is impossible to calculate just how many bees have been lost, however the numbers are in the thousands.

Even dead larvae have been spotted being thrown out of Michael and Sandy's hives, impacting the next generation of bees as well.

"It's an agonising death. It's not sudden, but slow and painful,” Mr Fleming said.

Honey bees can forage for anywhere up to a two- kilometre radius from their hives, so trying to figure out where the poisoning happened would be practically impossible.

Mrs Jeudwine hopes that the poisoning was an accidental mistake.

Northern Rivers Amateur Beekeepers Association's biosecurity officer Stephen Fowler said they were not trying to point the finger or place blame on someone.

"We just want people to understand,” Mrs Jeudwine said.

"We love our bees, so we're just devastated,” Mrs Jeudwine said.

"We're natural beekeepers, so we got into beekeeping to care for the welfare of the bees.”

Testing the dead bees for cause of death is very expensive, and even so, it would be difficult to pinpoint the exact poison or chemical.

What makes the whole situation worse is with every single hive affected, there is the possibility that the keepers have lost queens out of one or more of their hives, and it would be difficult to replace them.

"We're just hoping that the hives can hold out and survive so that we can introduce a new queen if necessary,” Mr Fleming said.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority received two reports of bee deaths last week, and is investigating.

EPA Director North Adam Gilligan said the EPA took all reports of bee deaths very seriously and would consider all avenues, including impact from pesticides as part of its investigation.

"Bees play an important role in any healthy ecosystem and are essential for the survival of many plant species and food crops,” Mr Gilligan said.

"To help reduce risks to bees from pesticide spraying, we encourage beekeepers to let farmers know specifically when and where they are going to put their hives.”

Any pesticide spraying should be undertaken at night when bees are not foraging.

Farmers have a responsibility to ensure they are using herbicides and pesticides safely, including following product instructions carefully, monitoring local weather conditions and connecting with any local bee keepers, other farmers and surrounding neighbours ahead of time.

The EPA contacted the Australian Macadamia Society last week to remind growers that

We encourage people to report any suspected pesticide misuse to the EPA's Environment Line 131555, providing as much information about the incident as possible.

For further information about pesticide misuse, please refer to the EPA's website https://www.epa.nsw.gov.au/your-environment/pesticides/preventing-pesticide-misuse.

It is an offence under the EPA's legislation to use pesticides in a manner that harms non-target animals with hefty penalties.

The maximum penalties for this are $120,000 for an individual, and $250,000 for a corporation.