Notes from the Beekeeping Climate Champion

The most recent Climate Champion Program Conference was held on 21/22 March in Canberra. The main event of this Conference was at the National Press Club – a mini-conference (involving mainly the 34 Climate Champions) covering issues around managing climate and emissions on-farm, followed by a full, televised lunch and panel discussion about food security in a changing climate (with a lot of journalists and government people attending).

The mini-conference started with Peter Hayman from the SA research and Development Institute (SARDI) talking about ‘communicating climate change’. He used the analogy of a sandcastle on the beach (one I have heard before, and a good one). What destroyed the sand-castle? The wave or the tide? Well, simplistically, it was the wave. But with a rising tide, there will be more sand-castle destroying waves! In other words, we know the climate is inherently variable, but that variability will increase, and in a clear direction, as climate change affects biophysical systems.

We mustn’t forget this point in relation to the direction our farm management strategies are aimed. Peter also spoke on the difficulty in communicating probabilities with an inherently high level of uncertainty – as is the case in forecasting the weather. What is clear, however, is that there is a trend towards warmer Springs – up by 1°C in Victoria, and 2°C in SA. Climate models are now more confident in predictions of a warming climate, but less so in the forecasts of a drying climate.

We also heard from Debbie Hudson (from the Centre for Australia Weather and Climate), about POAMA), and the work being done to fill the gap between weather and climate predications. POAMA is the Predictive Ocean Atmosphere Model for Australia. It is a seasonal forecast system based on models of the ocean and atmosphere.

How does POAMA generate a forecast?

POAMA combines current and historical ocean and atmospheric observations from ships, satellites and weather stations. Historical relationships and mathematical equations representing the laws of physics, forecast how the state of the ocean and atmosphere is evolving. POAMA produces an eight-month forecast every day. Currently POAMA has most skill in forecasting sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean and the occurrence of El Niño and La Niña.

POAMA puts out forecasts for the 7-day to three-week period – and is currently achieving the best skill in the 2nd fortnight in spring forecasts. It is becoming increasing accurate over the years, and the rainfall and temperature forecasts are more reliable in the new multi-week forecasts than in the seasonal forecasts models. This may be of particular use to beekeepers, who need to know about the expected frequency of rainfall within a short period (flowering events) than the total amount of rain expected.

Maya Stuart-Fox then spoke to us about understanding the Carbon Farming Initiative, and the intricacies of this program in relation to the Carbon Tax. Maya spoke on the fact that 60% of the emissions are coming from a small sector – coal, mining etc. The Carbon Farming Initiative is trying to reduce the emissions from these sectors. Agriculture and Forestry are excluded from the need to comply with reduction in emissions, but will be involved in Carbon Farming. Maya stressed that Carbon Farming should not be considered as an alternative to agricultural production, but as an adjunct to normal farming practices, suitable for unproductive land, land where erosion is taking place, or land that should never have been cleared in the first place because of its low potential for productivity. Consider the fact that some enterprising beekeepers are already buying ‘unproductive’ Ironbark forests in order to benefit from Carbon farming, but at the same time utilise the area for honey production.

Finally, Richard Eckerd from the University of Melbourne spoke about options for agriculture to reduce emissions. This was focused mainly on Methane and Nitrous Oxide emissions and inefficiencies. He presented an interesting discussion, and I especially like what he pointed to in the ‘abatement metrics’ – how this information is presented affects what we think (and do) about the situation. For example if you calculate emissions in terms of ‘emission/tonne of produce’, you get a different image than if you calculate for ‘emissions/nutrition’. That is, he made a good point about how the different values embedded in the discussion influence the direction of the discussion. Options for abatement include:

  • Dietary supplements for cattle, such as oils, tannin and legumes, to reduce methane production in cattle. This can result in more milk production with lower methane emissions
  • Animal management – minimising unproductive animals in the system; alternative livestock systems
  • Increasing feed quality, with reduction of the time feed is in the rumen
  • Improved nitrogen management – as in fertiliser rate, source, timing, placement, formulation, use of plant hormones and use of legumes
  • Use of nitrogen inhibitors to hold ammonia in the soil where cattle urinate

The National Press club lunch and panel that followed this mini-conference was a bit of a big deal. The Press Club was full – and Climate Champions got an opportunity to network with journalists, scientists and R&D representatives. The panel included Susan Findlay-Tickner, a Climate Champion and farmer from the Wimmera of VIC; Snow Barlow, convenor of the Primary Industries Research Adaptation Network; and Dr Shakeel Bhatti – the Secretary for the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. They each gave presentations on food security in relation to their level of understanding and experience (local, national and international), and then discussed the issues more broadly – including the issues around GM food, and what they means for food security nationally and globally. Susan spoke on the difficulty of coping with drought and extreme rainfall events, particularly as grain is being filled prior to harvest. This means she and her husband treat climate as a risk to be managed.

On a bit of a different note, for the next afternoon of the Climate Champion Conference, the Climate Champions came on a farm tour to see our property. Luckily, Dad’s hives were at home, working the Apple box from the hills around the back paddock – so everyone got to see the bees at the business. Dad spoke to the Climate Champions (mostly a range of farmers from grains /livestock backgrounds) about the ways in which beekeepers have traditionally coped with climate variability by locating nectar and pollen sources from areas which have received good rains; often this means shifting the bees long distances, but avoids the restrictions of adverse climate that can affect a normal farm.

The other Climate Champions, coming as they do from various different industries and regions, were very interested to hear about how a beekeeping operation works, and about the issues that beekeepers have to contend with – e.g. rainfall initiating Eucalypts to set bud up to 2 years before they actually flower; the need for bees to have access to good pollen sources of high protein content to maintain hive health; and the effects of the neonicotinoid pesticides upon honeybees. This latter topic generated a lot of interest among the grains growers, who were very surprised to learn of the residual nature of some of the pesticides they had assumed to be safe.

And that’s what I think is the greatest thing about this Program – we get a chance to learn about what others in completely different situations do – and it’s amazing how much you can learn from that, and it’s also amazing the similarities you discover you have in common with these people from seemingly different farm types and regions.

For more information on the Climate Champion programme, go to Climate Kelpie is for Australian farmers and their advisors. It connects you to tools and information about climate to help you make decisions about your farm business. Find out what Climate Kelpie can do for you. The Climate Kelpie website also explains the Climate Champion programme and has profiles on the 34 Climate Champions.

Author: Pele Cannon