Canoelands orchard farmer John Christie was fearing the worst. In 2022 the deadly bee parasite varroa mite had penetrated Australia’s borders at Newcastle on the NSW central coast. Just months later, in July 2023 at Canoelands, Christie’s beloved bees had been doused in petrol and killed by government officials – without even testing for the presence of the mite. It was part of a rash NSW government eradication program, to eliminate the deadly mite from Australia, something no other country had ever achieved once it had arrived.
As the mite spread across NSW, tens of millions of bees were destroyed and businesses were lost until eventually, the government conceded the plan was a failure. In Australia, as in every other country infested with the mite, it became abundantly clear the mite needed to be managed.
Like so many other farmers, Christie credited the success of his beautiful 100 year old family farm at Canoelands to the presence of his bees – with ten beehives, diligently pollinating until the end of each spring each year. But as the government and industry bodies steadfastly stuck to the eradication strategy, pleas for an alternate strategy by Christie and other farmers and beekeepers to manage the infestation fell on deaf ears.
For generations, Christie’s Canoelands Orchards has been a cornerstone of the Hawkesbury region, supplying Sydney with fresh stone fruit, citrus fruit, apples and berries. With encroaching development, many city fringe farmers haven’t survived. Christie’s family farm is one of the last in the north west rim.
Part of the key to the success of his operation has been the presence of his beehives. However, on that Monday night in July, the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) left Christie devastated. His daughter-in-law Christie told the Hawkesbury Post at the time “Our bees are being killed. Our hearts are broken!! There is no sign of the mite in our hives. ….Although we understand the threat and the requirement for drastic action, if more was done to ensure that this didn’t spread in the first place we would not be in this position. This is just so sad,” she said.
Spring has now come and almost gone. It’s been an unusual season Christie says. The high temperatures and dry early season. “It’s been a very different season. It’s been a very early fruit picking season. Fruit that we would not have picked until next year we are picking now,” he says.
All up he reckons the crop is 30 %down. Whether that is the reduction in bees or seasonal conditions, most likely a mix of both – it’s hard to tell. The outcome has been better than he expected. “There were quite a lot of bees they didn’t kill. They killed all the bees from people that were registered and that had hives, but not all the hives were registered, and there were quite a lot, they didn’t bait the stations.
“There are bees around, we know there are bees around, it’s surprising,” Christie said.
For a man who has given his life to his orchard and bees, the experience has been bruising. With a weariness in his voice Christie is however still looking to the future.
“I pretty much haven’t got over it yet. I haven’t got any more bees back. I’ll get myself into gear one day but right now I’m cracking on. I’ve lost a bit of heart over it. So I think I’ve got to toughen up and go and get some more bees,” he said.
“As far as the future goes, yeah, I don’t know. There are a lot of other pollinators out there aside from bees. It’s not the end all, here.”