OUTER SUBURBAN/INTERFACE SERVICES AND DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE Inquiry into sustainable development of agribusiness in outer suburban Melbourne Werribee — 17 February 2009
The CHAIR — Our next witnesses are from the Victorian Apiarists Association. All evidence you give here before the committee is protected by parliamentary privilege. Anything you say to the contrary outside the hearings is not protected. Mr JAMIESON — Gavin John Jamieson, PO Box 666, Ballarat 3353. My colleague is John Edmunds. Mr EDMUNDS — Robert John Edmunds, 724 Torquay Road, Mount Duneed, 3216. The CHAIR — Thank you. You have about 15 minutes to present, and then we will have time to ask questions. Mr JAMIESON — Thank you for the opportunity. The Victorian Apiarists Association was formed in 1892, so it has been around for one or two moons. The association consists of approximately 400 to 500 members. There are approximately 2000 registered beekeepers in the state. There are two forms of beekeepers: those who are commercial and who migrate bees from one end of the state, from crop to another; and then there are many, many people who have beehives in the backyard to pollinate their fruit and vegetables in their own backyard for their own production of food. We have become aware in recent times that local government has imposed local laws without any reference to the beekeeping industry in any way, shape or form, and that they completely restrict beekeeping — such as stating that the bees shall be confined to the property, so we need to put up a bee-proof fence around every property where we keep bees. I am sure it would be very difficult when we were engaged to pollinate a vegetable crop at Werribee South if we had to put up a bee-proof cage over a large area, let alone a field crop of, say, something like canola. What we would ask is that this inquiry take the matter back to the government, particularly Minister Wynne, and ask local government to rescind all local laws that deal with bees unless they are like those where you were last week. Mornington Peninsula Shire Council has a local law that says you shall not have feral bees on your property. A feral bee is a European honey bee colony that has gone wild, like a rabbit, and it has escaped. It then proliferates in the countryside, creating a nuisance for everybody. That is our basic tenet, that this is a major encumbrance on commercial beekeeping. I am sorry that because the Victorian government has not produced a figure for Victoria but the figure of the value of bees to the economy nationally is $3.5 billion — that is, bees pollinating crops and produce that extra food value is worth $3.5 billion per annum. We do not charge for that; that is the non-charged pollination value. I do not know of any other industry that provides such a community benefit, or anything like it, for no charge. In May 1997 the apiary code of 86
practice was brought by the Victorian government into every planning scheme in the state. It sets the rules of how and where you keep bees but suddenly we have discovered we have all these other rules which make it difficult to impossible. What most beekeepers are doing is ignoring the local laws and going underground — hiding from the enforcers — and so it is not achieving anything. John is a founding member of the Geelong beekeeping group. He might like to add to the dilemmas of urban beekeeping. Mr EDMUNDS — I endorse what Gavin is saying. When the code of practice came out, it served us very well. The problem is that the councils now have ignored or are ignoring it and we are getting unworkable problems. To give you an example, there are many places where we go and pollinate. For example, I take bees to Bacchus Marsh and now that we have suburbia all around orchards bees are located there. It makes for a lot of difficulties in meeting the rules, if the rules are too tight. We do pollination in lots of other places that are very close to suburbia. At times we just have to put large numbers of bees there to do the job. So we need a bit of flexibility. We are migratory — we move, we come, we go. We are there only for the time that the crop is being pollinated. Mr JAMIESON — There are six hobby beekeeping groups, five in Melbourne and one in Geelong, and some of those groups have up to 80 active members. Those are people who keep bees in suburbia and comply, we hope, largely with the code of practice. Most of those have been totally unaware that this other set of rules called local laws have come in. We are not against local laws as a principle, but we do not know which of the rules we should follow — the code, which is legally binding, or the local laws, which are actually subservient to the state Planning and Environment Act. Council officers, including one who I visited this morning before the hearing started, are not aware of this other set of rules, because it is not within their duty statements to look up the planning scheme for enforcement. They are there to look after local laws and other enforcement issues. If they have a problem understanding what is what, for beekeepers who come down to do a job, at short notice often, for a horticulturalist, a vegie grower or a broadacre cereal crop grower, it becomes nigh on impossible for us to work out all the ramifications of the planning scheme, what zone is what and where to put the bees. We come in and locate hives at night. Sometimes that is done at short notice. An example of this will come up this year. The bushfires have burnt a huge number of bee sites and hives. People will be helping out other people to do the pollination that we are required to do. This is not in the outer Melbourne urban or peri-urban areas, but this August approximately 70 000 beehives, with roughly 140 hives fitting on a truck, will be required for almond pollination on the Murray River between Swan Hill and Renmark, so it is very big business. That industry is based largely on managed investment schemes. If they do not get bees, they will not get almonds. It is a direct relationship: no bees, no almonds, and that investment will fail. We move here, there and everywhere, right across the urban and peri-urban areas. For instance, in the past 18 months I have had bees as far away as 40 kilometres north of Mildura, in New South Wales, to within 20 kilometres of the New South Wales border at Genoa. I do not think I should have to know every planning scheme and every zone of every planning scheme across the state to operate my business, when it took me 35 minutes this morning to find even what the local law was here in this municipality. I would hate to think how long it would take if I had six options of where to put bees in terms of the planning scheme. That is the nature of the problem. Another issue that affects these same peri-urban and outer Melbourne urban areas is that the government is constantly restricting access to public land on the basis that bees are exotic and that they might, on the precautionary principle, do some damage to nature. Therefore we are not allowed into many flora and fauna reserves and some parks. In the case of VicForests at, say, 87
Powelltown or Noojee — that which has not burnt this year; it burnt last in 1983 and took until four years ago to recover — the prescription is that they are not allowed to leave a site cleared, so there are no longer bee sites. Some 18 months ago we appealed to the appropriate people in VicForests and DSE and asked them to amend the code to allow a clearing to be left for beekeepers to put bees in every now and again for six or eight weeks at a time. I would have to say disappointingly they have never got back to us. That was a formal meeting of the Victorian Farmers Federation beekeepers section with senior management and there has been no response. Now we have had more fires and the same will happen: it will all regenerate naturally and there will be no sites left for putting bees on. If we do not have clearings that you can drive a truck into and operate in safely, there will no longer be bee sites. Mountain ash is flowering at the moment and manna gum is about to flower in that eastern highlands area, which is within your study area. I will not put my bees there for the moment, for the fires. We need a clearing, an absolutely minimal clearing. We are required by law to have a 3-metre clearing of flammable materials other than standing trees clearing. Beekeepers have been subject to the wrath of some of the agency people because the hives were only 45 metres off a track and they are required to be 50 metres off. The park ranger came along and said, ‘You’re 5 metres too close to this track. No, you’re not allowed to clear the undergrowth. We’ve cancelled your site. Get off it’. So our livelihood and living is jeopardised. Another issue that John again is very much aware of is blanket weed, which is very prominent — for instance, it is here in the nature strip outside this building. It is dominating virtually all non-irrigated and/or non-cultivated land in this peri-urban area. It is going to threaten agriculture. DSE has modelled it to extend to an area approximately from Wodonga to Ouyen. It has an absolutely revolting honey. I think it is fair to say that most horses will not even eat the honey from it. It is going to dominate all other honeys and therefore the value of the whole honey industry is going to be at threat. The majority of the strategies for weeds are based on the idea that when it’s a big problem we then do something about it. We are rarely proactive and do something before it is too costly. Most people do not even know what blanket weed is yet. Werribee knows what it is. People at the council here are very well aware of it. Outside the immediate area where it has become a problem they think, ‘It’s not a problem; let’s not worry about it’. It will dominate all other honeys and therefore it is a threat to the rest of an industry. Mr EDMUNDS — It is also smothering all our natives. Your native grasses will not amount to anything like we have put up on there once blanket weed takes over, because not only will it completely cover the ground but it will also grow up the fences. If you go down to the Western Treatment Works farm today and you drive around, you will see that not only are all the roadside verges completely blanketed with blanket weed now but it is also growing up the fence. The biggest problem has been with less sheep. Sheep will eat it, the cattle barely eat it, horses will not touch it, kangaroos will not eat it. It is only where sheep nibble at it and keep it under control that you keep it down. We have so much country now that does not get grazed by sheep that it is just growing and taking off. You will see paddocks around Werribee that are now 100 per cent blanket weed, and the honey is bitter. The most amazing thing about it is it grows very well with the drought. It grows right underneath sugar gum trees and other trees. It will dominate and take over all our forest lands if something is not done. I understand it was brought in by the CRB to stop erosion on the banks of cuttings where they made roadways. It then took off and it is travelling along the sides of the road from Werribee, Bacchus Marsh and now parts of Geelong out as far as Bannockburn and Inverleigh. It must have a very fine seed because it seems to spread with the water. If you get a bit of floodwater, it will shift into other areas.
Mr JAMIESON — Bees do well on it, they love the honey. It responds to rain so it is flowering periodically on many occasions during the year. Most flowering plants, apart from perhaps lavender, have a time of flowering and that is it — until that time of the next year. This keeps flowering. It is good for bees in terms of volume and health but it is revolting as a product that we want to sell. Mr EDMUNDS — And it is not going to be good for the environment. All your native orchids and all the little things you want to protect will disappear — as I said, even native grasses. Mr JAMIESON — The message is proactiveness, not reactiveness. That is difficult in a budget that is constrained but it will always cost more if we do not do it now. That has been the experience with all other weeds, particularly serrated tussock. This has out competed serrated tussock in the Werribee area and has totally taken over — I will name the actual property, without permission — the Underbank Stud on the Ballarat side of Bacchus Marsh. Ten or 20 years ago that was entirely serrated tussock, so without any intervention of man it has replaced one horrible with another horrible. Mr EDMUNDS — It has a taproot in the centre and then will grow out 6 to 8 feet from that taproot. Once it becomes established as a very large plant it is very hard to cultivate because when the plough comes through, it binds all the equipment up. The farmers hate it because it makes it very hard to clean their equipment. You will see the paddocks will have masses and masses of rows of this stuff that they have to burn after they have ploughed. The only ways to control it are sheep or cultivate every year — — Mr JAMIESON — And that is not sustainable. We recently found blanket weed in Creswick on the newly established natural gas pipeline. Contractors are not aware of it because it is not a priority. Their hygiene has not been adequate and it has shifted. I think we have run over our quarter of an hour. The CHAIR — Thank you. Any questions? Mr NARDELLA — I went to a farm the other day. I forget what he called it, it was not blanket weed but something else — — Mr JAMIESON — Galenia pubescens. Mr NARDELLA — Yes, galenia. Mr EDMUNDS — That is its proper name. Mr NARDELLA — Absolutely. It is just ugly. He was in there ripping it out and he has bags of the stuff in the shed ready to burn. Mr EDMUNDS — It is very hard to spray. You can spray it but it is hard to kill. Mr NARDELLA — And the seeds just keep on going everywhere. With the apiarists code, is there some way, and it might be one of the recommendations that we have a look at, of letting councils know definitively that that is what they should be putting in place rather than their own codes? Mr JAMIESON — That would be good but perhaps what should happen is what was to happen 11 years ago, and the Municipal Association of Victoria was going to be involved in this. DPI prepared a training program of half-day courses for environmental health officers, planning enforcement officers and local law enforcement people so they could be given an opportunity, like every other code in the planning scheme, to have an introduction. That never happened. The DPI person who prepared the training course still has the course material, and certainly that would be a
positive step. This is the tool and if somebody is not complying with this, they should be prosecuted. Mr K. SMITH — Gavin, nice to see you here. We have been corresponding and you have been talking to my office about a little difficulty on Phillip Island. We have had a look at that and I mailed you a response on Friday, or it might have been yesterday — you will get a response. We have gone into the local laws down there and had a look at why they had to introduce them if you have got the DPI’s ruling there. Their concern was the amount of beekeeping that is done in residential areas. They do not have any complaints at all about them being set up on rural properties or anywhere that is not in the planning scheme as residential. Their concern is only residential. They have been receiving some complaints and they have asked for some insurance. You were talking about feral bees before and there are a few feral bees down there so maybe the problem is with them getting out and stinging people and if they are in residential areas the council then being seen as being liable because it allowed them to remain in those residential areas. That was their concern. They have also had a legal opinion that their local law does have standing as well as what is in the DPI — — Mr JAMIESON — This is not DPI. The then Minister for Planning brought this in, not DPI. Rob Maclellan brought this in as the Minister for Planning — this is in the planning scheme, it is not a DPI thing. Certainly feral bees are a problem. When fire blight disease was thought to have been found in the botanic gardens by the New Zealand fire blight expert, we said, ‘Bees shift fire blight disease from plant to plant, you better go and have a look at how many feral bees there are in the botanic gardens’. Thirty-seven beehives were found in the botanic gardens, all feral. Under the City of Melbourne’s planning scheme they were illegal. Under the local laws at the time they were illegal, but 37 feral hives were found in the botanic gardens managed by the department of the environment. Feral bees are everywhere. Mornington has a local law that says you shall not have feral bees on your property. If we want a local law, that is the local law we should have. The Code covers the managed hives and how to manage them. Incidentally, and this is not just being flippant, the bee does not understand what zone she is in. They fly up to 8 kilometres from the beehive, so zoning where you have bees does not does not achieve anything, in our experience, a solution to the conflict between humans and bees. It is how you keep them, not where you keep them. There are controls here in the Code, from one hive on properties of less than 500 square metres, up to properties of 1000 to 2000 square metres, 2000 to 4000 square metres, 4000 square metres to 1 hectare, 1 to 2 hectares and larger than 2 hectares. Differing numbers of hives can be put on those parcels of land. But a local permit does not stop the problem, it is just a method of getting upwards of $180 for the council and a lot of involvement on the part of the beekeeper. It does not stop the bees — they do not know there is a permit, they do not know how to avoid the problems. It is how you do something, not what paperwork you have got. That is why we have always felt that permits do not achieve anything. In the 11 years this Code has been in I do not know if anybody has applied for a planning permit. Everybody has been able to adhere to the conditions of this — if you do not adhere to the conditions of this you have to apply for a planning permit or pay the fine for non-compliance. The CHAIR — Any other questions? If not, thank you very much. In due course you will get a copy of the Hansard transcript. Witnesses withdrew.