It's often when people think about bees they just think about honey, but bees have a lot more to offer than just honey. They play a significant role in terms of pollination services for our horticultural industries and it's an amazing way to generate income without damaging the environment.
My name's Cooper Schouten, I'm a beekeeper and a researcher at Southern Cross University in Northern New South Wales Australia.
I'm also the project manager for Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods research group and I work with an amazing team at Southern Cross University and other universities in Australia and overseas to deliver outcomes for the beekeeping community in the Indo-Pacific region.
After studying my Bachelor of Environmental Science at Southern Cross University I went on to do an Honours degree because I was successful getting a scholarship to go on work in Timor-Leste.
When I was up in the rural mountains there was some young boys that were saying that they were harvesting honey from the tops of these very tall trees and sometimes people fall to their deaths actually trying to harvest this honey.
I thought there's got to be a better way of doing this and so I realised I needed to learn more in order to help people and so I went on just continued on from there and was lucky enough to get some projects funded through the Australian Centre for International Agriculture Research.
My studies at Southern Cross University have really opened my eyes to the potentials of a career where I can not only try to help people out of poverty in developing countries and create research that can have outcomes for our industry here in Australia, but it's also enabling me to achieve my aspirations and help other people to be able to achieve theirs as well.
We're doing some research throughout the Indo-Pacific region, and it's not just about doing more beekeeping, it's about improving the way in which we approach international development and these partnership programs with our some of our nearest neighbours.
So it's not just about more bees and more honey, it's about improving capacity building for skills people here as well as overseas.
One of the main reasons why I love beekeeping it's something that I can do that makes me feel really present, and there in the moment, I can forget about my emails for a minute and just think about the biology and ecology of the bees.
I think it's about an emotional connection to the bees, but I think it's also just a curiosity I think all researchers and successful farmers have a curiosity with the environment and the things that they're working with whether it's crops or livestock bees or plants.
It's something that really drives me in my work, something I'm really passionate about is when I turn up to some of these communities and you can see the tangible changes in front of your eyes so it's amazing you come back after a year later, and a beekeeper might have forgotten how to make colony splits or something like that and then you come back, and they've multiplied all their colonies, they're selling honey their kids are going to school and it just it puts a smile on everyone's faces .
From the Northern Rivers of New South Wales to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, Dr Cooper Schouten is carving out a road less travelled in international development and agricultural research.
A Southern Cross University environmental science and PhD graduate as well as a professional beekeeper, Cooper manages numerous projects in the Indo-Pacific region with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), and is also the project leader for the University’s Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods research group.
His unusual career was sparked by a chance encounter several years ago when working in Timor-Leste as part of a New Colombo Plan scholarship. Local honey hunters recounted the process of collecting honey from the tops of giant shade trees, using a burning branch at night – a deadly harvest that saw people frequently fall to their deaths.
“I thought to myself, there has to be a better way of doing this, and it grew from there,” said Cooper.
“What I’ve come to discover is that throughout the Indo-Pacific region, it's not just about doing more beekeeping. It's about improving the way in which we approach international development and these partnership programs with some of our nearest neighbours. These partnerships enable us to focus on long term solutions to problems that matter to local people.
“So it's not just about more bees and more honey, it's about improving incomes, welfare and capacity building for industry-relevant skills, for people here as well as overseas,” he said.
Cooper’s research is wide-ranging, covering resilience, inclusion, and profitability for smallholder beekeeping enterprises particularly in Papua New Guinea and Fiji, but also for the beekeeping industry in Australia.
“A lot of our research is also looking at best management practices for overcoming issues related to honey bee pests and diseases, effective training and extension, bee nutrition and biosecurity. So we’re looking at genetics and queen bee breeding as well as beekeeping finance to ensure these beekeeping enterprises are profitable and sustainable.
“There’s a lot more to beekeeping than honey. We're also doing market research and capacity building for developing new value-adding to bee products. You can turn beeswax and propolis into products such as surf wax, surf zinc, lip balms, candles and soaps, for example.”
Developing gender equity in the beekeeping industry is a priority.
“Beekeeping industries globally are heavily dominated by men, but it doesn't have to be that way. The research is really clear – although 50 per cent of farmers globally are women, they are disproportionately affected by poverty. There are opportunities to improve women's agency, skills and relationships and this is critical to reducing poverty for everyone. We really need to walk the talk when it comes to overcoming bias around women in agriculture, science and beekeeping.
“Both overseas and here in Australia, those organisations that are drawing on the talents of both women and men equally at all levels are going to outperform those who do not,” he said.
The honey bee industry in Australia is worth an estimated $14 billion to the Australian economy, says Cooper, and the ACIAR projects can be a fertile ground to recruit a new generation of local beekeepers with research and training skills to support the industry. “We're able to identify students who are really passionate about the industry, about beekeeping. That's really important in terms of looking to the future of the Australian honey bee industry, and pollination-dependent horticultural crops.
“My studies at Southern Cross University really opened my eyes to a career where I can not only work to help people out of poverty in our neighbouring countries, and create research that can have outcomes for our industry here in Australia, but it's also enabling me to achieve my aspirations and help other people to be able to achieve theirs as well.”
Additional PNG beekeeping footage courtesy of Lillian Keneqa
The Southern Cross University Alumni Network
Alumni Impact Award recipients
Alumnus of the Year
Lisa is a triple sailing world record holder on a mission to take community action on climate change around the world with her. She is about to set sail for Antarctica where she is seeking to break yet another world record, circumnavigating the icy continent.
Young Alumnus of the Year
Nic is the CEO of Batyr, a not-for-profit youth mental health organisation. He is striving to reduce the stigma around mental ill-health and provide young people with the support they need.
International Alumnus of the Year
International Alumnus of the Year Neelkamal Darbari has created a lasting impact in the lives of individuals, communities and industries across India, dedicating almost 35 years of service to the Government of India and State Government of Rajasthan.
Community Impact Award
Hank and Sue Bower
Hank and Sue Bower have been managing pest and weed eradication programs on Lord Howe Island for the past 14 years. Their work has sparked an 'ecological renaissance' on the UNESCO World Heritage-listed island and a model of how a fragile environment can be successfully managed to ensure it thrives for generations to come.