The Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods research group led by Southern Cross University’s Dr Cooper Schouten is bringing economic and community benefits to the people of the Indo-Pacific, where partnerships and opportunity are more than just a buzzword.
When the talk turns to bees, the conversation heats up and the tea goes cold. Dr Cooper Schouten’s story rises from Southern Cross University’s research apiary and travels on the air, north-west for almost 4500km, before settling in the steaming forests of the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. Here is the home of the honey hunters.
The story Cooper tells is an epic par excellence. Of transporting precious honey on horseback down precarious mountainsides, across roiling rivers and through dense forests. Of watching amazed as young honey hunters pray to the spirit of the trees before scaling them to harvest the wild honey, 30m up, at night and without ropes. Of hearing old village shamans speak of an ancient earth-lunar thread sewn between bees, honey and the full moon. Of unlikely friendships made in isolated communities in remote places. Of lives changed by bees. And of Cooper’s own life, also changed.
“When people ask me how I got into bees, I say it was the bees that chose me,” says Cooper, before he turns to the older man seated opposite. “The bees and David.”
David is esteemed scientist and former Southern Cross University Professor David Lloyd. Now happily retired, he has dropped by the apiary to catch up with Cooper over a cuppa.
It was David who nine years ago took burgeoning environmental scientist Cooper to Timor-Leste as part of a DFAT-funded New Colombo Plan Scholarship around opportunities and strategies for improving tertiary science education in rural communities. It was there in the Timorese highlands that Cooper realised he could combine his passion for the environment, bees and community development.
With David’s recent retirement, Cooper now leads Southern Cross University’s Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods research group. Funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the project team is seeking to increase the profitability and resilience of smallholder beekeeping enterprises in Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
“There are so many great outcomes,” says David. “For me, the biggest thrill is when people realise that a better life is within their grasp. It is buzzing away, all around them. It means their children get to school, that people are safer, healthier and happier. They’re earning money – an extra $1k per year can quadruple smallholder farming family earnings – so they can repair their homes, expand their gardens, and afford what they need to make their lives and livelihoods much easier.”
Adds Cooper: “As a beekeeper I may be – or should I say ‘bee’ – a little biased here but identifying strategies to generate income without damaging the environment is critical to sustainable development both in Australia and overseas.
“And bees are a pretty great way of doing this.
We’re not just working to do more beekeeping, but to learn how we can improve the effectiveness of beekeeping interventions. Of course, not everything is as smooth or as sweet as honey. The global pandemic certainly brought challenges for international agricultural research for development during 2021 and it continues to be influential.
However, while COVID-19 prevented travel, Cooper says Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods’ partnerships in the Indo-Pacific have provided excellent grounding and ongoing capability around working with local communities to continue research and capacity-building for partner countries and Australia.
This is particularly encouraging in terms of the understandable urgency around honey bee biosecurity and food security. Currently, concern continues to surround the fatal honey bee disease American foulbrood, in Fiji; the Small Asian Honey Bee (Apis cerana); and the spread of honey bee mites (Tropilaelaps mercedesae and Varroa jacobsoni) in Papua New Guinea.
“Australia is one of the last countries globally where Varroa and Tropilaelaps mites are not found and we do not want them here,” says Cooper. “This mite is a parasitic vector for disease and it has been estimated that the potential impact of an unhindered incursion of Varroa could be as high as $1.31b over 30 years.
“If these mites were to take a hold in Australia, it would have significant implications for the beekeeping industry and pollination-dependent horticultural crops.”
As beekeeping research capacity and knowledge continues to build around honey in Pacific Island countries, the leadership of Bees for Sustainable Livelihoods remains crucial and ongoing for a number of initiatives in Australia and overseas. In Cooper, it is clear that David has left the enterprise in very capable hands.
And with that, David and Cooper finish their tea, put their veils back on and light their bee smokers, just like not so old times together. On the early summer breeze, the bees flit between flowers.