Des & Jenan Cannon

Region: Urila, south-east New South Wales

Commodity: Beekeeping - honey, beeswax and pollination services

Farming area: 16 hectares on-farm; bees need access to more land


Twitter: @bilgahon

Phone: 02 6236 3294


“Australia is better off than any other beekeeping country in the world because we don’t have mites and viruses, and we’ve been able to cope with some extent of climate variability by moving our bees. There are a lot of big threats out there to the beekeeping industry - it is going to become more difficult to sustain the practices to deal with climate.”

Des and Jenan Cannon on their property at Urila, NSW

See what Des and Jenan have to say about:


Beekeeping in Urila

We are beekeepers from Urila, which is about 50 kilometres south-east of Canberra. The business has changed since we were last interviewed in late 2010.

In 2003 we expanded our mix of enterprises to include pollination services, and the production of queen bees for the local hobbyist market. We have sold 160 hives and kept 25.

Effectively, we’ve gone back to being hobbyist beekeepers, but we retain our involvement in the industry as we publish the national beekeeping journal The Australasian Beekeeper, which is distributed to all Australian states.

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Nutrition for bees

Bees are very much like us: they need a balanced diet. They collect nectar for carbohydrate, which is energy, and collect pollen for protein.

They need a range of different pollens to get a range of amino acids from the pollen. Bees from a hive will go to a number of different plants to collect different pollens, and that way they attain their balanced diet.

That’s why bees are such effective pollinators of flowers and fruit crops.

Flowering trees

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The hidden costs of climate variability

Climate variability is probably affecting beekeepers more insidiously than they realise.

On top of the decreasing profitability of honey production - the honey price hasn’t really moved in the last 5-10 years - if beekeepers have to move their bees more often, that will affect their profitability as well.

Moving bees long distances, anywhere from 200 to 1000 kilometres, also subjects the bees to stress and increases the effect of viruses, fungi, mites and pesticides.

For example, eastern Australia has a common bacterial disease through bees called European Foulbrood. It is present at a low level in most hives but doesn’t really have an effect unless the bees are under stress, when their productivity goes down - even more so when it’s too hot or cold (less than 15 °C).

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Extreme heat effects on managed and native beehives

Climate variability affects bees in how they cope with extreme heat.

Bees normally like to hold the inside of the hive at 34-35 °C, and they do this in different ways.

We’ve seen bees on the entrance fanning air into the hive with their wings - facing out, fanning backwards, and facing in, fanning forwards - setting up an air current through the hive. They’re very clever.

When the temperature reaches about 38 °C, some of the field bees stop foraging for nectar and start collecting water to try to humidify the hive and keep it cool.

At 43 °C, all the bees have switched over to water-carting and, by that time, each hive is using about 2 litres of water a day. The single biggest influence on the survival of feral [wild] honey bee colonies is the availability of water - if they don’t have water available, they will die out.

Managed hives survive such temperatures because beekeepers take them away or provide water. A truckload of 100 hives is going to need a 44-gallon drum of water each day, or beekeepers can cover them with shade cloth.

Bee hives

At 47 °C outside the hive, the wax inside becomes extremely soft and can’t support the weight of the honey stored in the hive. The wax collapses under the pressure and you get a flood of honey coming out of the hive. By then, all the bees have left the hive in a last ditch effort to keep the temperature inside at a level where the brood won’t die.

We saw this happen to feral hives in December 2012 and again in January 2013, during extreme heat events in southern NSW, and in South Australia in 2013-14 to the managed beehives of commercial beekeepers.

Growers will become increasingly aware of their dependence on honey bees for pollination, because so much pollination is done by the feral honey bee population. This has definitely happened in places like Batlow and Young, where the apple and cherry growers have had to start bringing in hives for managed pollination.

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Changes to flowering trees from earlier springs and heat

What we’re really seeing - and not just in Australia, but through very well documented cases in the United States - is that spring is coming earlier. The flowers are flowering earlier in spring than they used to. Sometimes there is a 10-13 day difference.

This difference affects the viability of the flower and seed because they’re not getting as much cold weather to set their seed before they flower.

In extreme heat sometimes the flowers on trees shrivel up and die, so nectar flow is completely cut off. We saw this in 2013 when yellow box [Eucalyptus melliodora] were flowering in our valley and yielding quite well, but instead of the nectar flow lasting for 2 months, it lasted only about 3 weeks.

Yellow box is also an example of a tree that won’t yield honey when the weather is too cold. It needs warm days and mild nights. If it flowers in September instead of October, the temperature is still too cold for it to yield good nectar, and then you get a burst of hot weather and it doesn’t yield for as long.

Bee hives

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Shifting, but stabilising, honey flows

Although some honey flows have become more unreliable, I think there’s possibly a little bit of stability in the amount of time that plants are flowering.

Some species are flowering earlier than they used to, and they’re not flowering for as long, but I think that is beginning to stabilise over the last few years.

Paterson’s curse [Echium plantagineum] used to start flowering in early October, and continue through to the end of November; it’s now flowering late in September and going to mid-November. But it also has to contend with hotter days in that period, which is affecting the viability. It’s burning off much faster than it used to.

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Increasing efficiency by finding new plants for producing honey

70 per cent of our honey is produced from native flora such as eucalyptus and banksia, about 10 per cent from agricultural crops like canola, and the rest comes from weeds like Paterson’s curse.

When moving our hives between these different sites, we tend to stay longer in some areas than others because we’ve got a better understanding of what can be extracted from the trees growing in that area.

For instance, at a site on the NSW South Coast, instead of just spotted gum trees, we’ve come to realise that the bees can use 4 other tree species there. That extended the bees’ stay in the area by 4 months.

Each hive was producing more honey: our production over the year went from 110 kilograms per hive up to about 180 kilograms per hive.

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Visiting trees and using forecasts to plan ahead

To plan where to go, I start by looking at an area to see whether flowering has been initiated.

Around March each year, for instance, I go to Eucumbene Dam [about 30 kilometres west of Cooma, NSW] and look at the snow gums to see if many of them have started budding. If they have, I keep a close watch on the rainfall events in that area using Bureau of Meteorology observations on a weekly and monthly basis, to see if they keep getting rainfall to keep that bud initiation going.

Then I would go back and check that area in August or September to see how many trees are going to bud and how heavily they’ve budded, because the long-range weather forecasts can’t tell me that.

For a flowering to be useful for us, we’re really looking for 60-70 per cent of the trees to flower. We also look at whether it’s a light flowering or a heavy flowering, to get an idea of how many flowers are going to be available for the bees to use.

Flowering tree

CSIRO and universities are doing some research using satellite imagery to indicate whether eucalypts are flowering, and that’s something the beekeeping industry has looked at in the past. Those tools are being developed, and they would be very useful for beekeepers to use.

Some beekeepers are starting to use such tools but they’re on a fairly local scale. One that is currently being developed is called Beebox [which uses historical and current satellite imagery to help beekeepers predict where and when eucalypt trees will flower].

Monthly rainfall summaries from the Bureau are also very helpful. Current Bureau projects to forecast the occurrence, length and severity of extreme heat events will also be extremely useful in future.

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Business opportunities from pollination services

In 2003 we were one of the first three NSW beekeepers to travel to Robinvale in the north-western region of Victoria for almond pollination. We did almond pollination for 7 years until our hive numbers dropped (as we went into semi-retirement) and it was no longer economical to do 2 trips per year to Robinvale. At the same time, we did cherry pollination in the Young district in NSW.

Pollination is a good avenue for beekeepers to make money at a period when they probably wouldn’t be getting honey, and more and more beekeepers are doing it. In 2013, there were about 165 beekeepers involved in pollinating the almond crop at Robinvale.

Pollination services would be even more critical if the varroa mite [an external parasitic mite that is a devastating pest of honey bees] was to come to Australia, because all the feral hives would die out very quickly. We are currently the only country in the world that doesn’t have varroa.

New Zealand has had it since 2000, and pollination prices doubled overnight when it arrived because there was an immediate competition between the growers to make sure they had their bee hives secured for kiwifruit pollination.

Des and Jenan with their honey-extracting equipment

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Pressures on beekeeping businesses

Australia is better off than any other beekeeping country because of the absence of varroa mites. Because we’re not getting the effect of the viruses, we’ve been able to cope with some extent of climate variability by moving our bees.

We’ve also coped very well because we don’t rely on agricultural land as much as American beekeepers do, for instance, and Australia is not as densely populated as Europe.

But there are a lot of big threats out there to the Australian beekeeping industry as a whole. Honey is now getting very low prices and it is going to become increasingly difficult to sustain the practices to deal with climate. Commercial beekeeping is on the decline; it’s not really noticeable yet but it will become more noticeable.

Declining commercial beekeeping has been marginally countered by a huge upsurge in urban and hobbyist beekeeping. These, however, are not going to solve pollination problems because a person with one or two hives on their balcony is not going to be, say, pollinating nectarines at Oakdale because the nectarine grower needs 60 hives.

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Climate affecting vulnerability to mites, viruses and fungi

Varroa mites, viruses and the microsporidian fungi Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae can increase the effect of climate on hives, by decreasing the productivity of the hive and opening a weak hive to parasite attack.

The varroa mite basically suppresses the immune system of the honey bee as a colony. A severe outbreak in a colony can kill the entire colony.

It reproduces on the brood but doesn’t kill it; rather the brood that hatches is reduced in its ability to function. It bores through the side of larvae and increases the vulnerability of the larvae to viruses - there are about 23 viruses that affect honey bees.

In extreme cases the brood dies faster than it is hatching, so the colony will die out over winter.

Stacked trays


Interview date: 15 March 2013

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Contact Des and Jenan Cannon

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