Unique to our beautiful island, this rich honey is produced from the nectar of flowers on leatherwood trees found deep in the rainforest, much of it around the Tarkine.
Just the name leatherwood evokes strong passion, and I completely understand the intense debate currently swirling around the access of beekeepers to our forests and those prized leatherwood trees. However, if we want leatherwood to be around for future generations to enjoy, then it is imperative that cool heads and calm debate prevails. This unfortunately is far from the case.
Putting it bluntly, we would not have a beekeeping industry without the cooperation of Tasmanian land managers, such as Sustainable Timber Tasmania (STT).
However, earlier this month Legislative Councillor Ruth Forrest sparked a firestorm when she wrote “Leatherwood trees are increasingly becoming casualties of forestry operations of Sustainable Timber Tasmania to meet what appears to be unsustainable contracts for native hardwood” (Talking Point, June 1). That is not correct. STT should not be condemned for its historic failings. Rather, it now acknowledges that the forests are for everyone.
In fact, STT has bent over backwards to help beekeepers by retaining leatherwood trees from harvest, thus enabling us to make a living and keep our businesses strong. This in turn allows beekeepers to keep pollinating Tasmania’s cherries, apricots, apples, pears, cabbages, onions, carrots, fodder crops like clover and lucerne and even canola for seed production.
For two years the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association — the state’s peak industry body — worked closely with STT to establish guidelines for the harvesting of forests to save leatherwood. It was not a smooth journey.
Representing the Beekeepers Association were myself, Bob Davey and Peter Norris. Our first challenge was the definition of “commercial leatherwood”. No matter how hard we tried, our committee failed to reach agreement.
Despite this, I agreed to put these tougher proposed guidelines to STT and much to my surprise they accepted our definition of “commercial leatherwood”. Even better still, we then progressed to the signing of Memorandum of Understanding at, appropriately, a beekeeping site near Launceston.
But all this goodwill is now under fire. And if we want to ensure the preservation of Tasmania’s iconic honey, the various stakeholders need to cool down and engage in reasoned debate about beekeeper access to precious leatherwood trees.
This needs to be done now — before it is too late.
The bottom line is that beekeepers desperately need greater access to leatherwood forest.
Consider this. Commercial Tasmanian sites for beehives in rainforest require 24ha of the bush containing leatherwood to sustain just one hive of bees. That equates to 120 hives per 2,800ha hectares. Furthermore, older leatherwood trees yield honey better than the younger trees.
As things currently stand all the accessible leatherwood sites have been fully taken up, apart from a few exceptions to the rule.
It is important to remember that almost all of Tasmania’s bee industry is still small scale, with most of us relying on a mixed business — like pollinating and honey harvesting — to survive.
Solutions need to be found straight away. There has been a massive 40 per cent increase in beehive numbers in the last seven years, which has put enormous pressure on the four land managers — Parks, Hydro Tasmania, private forests and of course STT.
Tasmanian Beekeepers harvest 70 per cent-plus of all their yearly honey from the rainforest. This year I collected 90 per cent of my honey from the Tarkine Forests.
There is no doubt we are the lucky beehive state.
Data shows Tasmania is top of the Australian table in terms of forest access. We also produce our annual honey harvest in just three months as compared with the nine months required by mainland beekeepers.
However, our luck could soon run out. Calm, cool heads are required to negotiate an agreement ensuring the future survival of Leatherwood Honey — an irreplaceable Tasmanian icon.
Lindsay Bourke is president of the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association.