CROPPING and horticulture face a biological double whammy - falling pollination rates, thanks to the small hive beetle, will fall even further if a forecast invasion by the varroa mite hits Australia.
Wild honey bee populations have been devastated by the small hive beetle. Beekeepers say their phones are ringing with farmers concerned about pollination and wanting help to avoid a sudden drop in productivity.
Queensland beekeeper, Dave Elson, said tens of thousands of feral hives have been killed by the beetle.
"That's not to mention the impact on professional colonies," he said.
"I know some beekeepers who've lost several hundred hives in one go. Half the established beekeepers have lost their bees.
"We know how to deal with it - but it takes expertise and significant cost to purchase bait stations to protect our hives.
"This beetle is an absolute scourge of the industry, and now the effects on our native bee population are being felt by farmers.
"The honey bee is known to be nature's most efficient worker and agriculture's best friend and ally," he said.
"It's claimed that about one third of the human diet is attributable to bee pollination."
Mr Elson said passionfruit farmer, Keith Paxton, was a case in point.
As the beetle impacted on feral hives on his property and bee numbers reduced, so the quality of Mr Paxton's passionfruit was affected, with less pulp and juice.
The impact was rapid as the local population of feral bees was killed off in just two years. By buying and maintaining eight of his own hives, Mr Paxton had restored the quality of his fruit.
Mr Elson said that while feral bee numbers remained low, the benefit of building and maintaining hives or making commercial pollination arrangements with professional bee-keepers was significant.
A recent study of NSW rockmelon growers found that for an initial pollination fee of four to six cents a case, growers achieved an increased return of between 50c and $3 a case.
A research project, entitled The Pollination Program, jointly funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) and Horticulture Australia (HAL) reviewed 35 case studies on pollination.
Chairman of the program's research advisory committee, Gerald Martin, said pollination could improve the yield and quality of fruit, and with apples, cherries and apricots it can also help ensure the fruit is an even size and ripens more evenly, minimising management costs.
Mr Martin warned that the arrival of varroa mite in Australia could also throw horticulture into chaos and make growers reliant on managed hives.
"The varroa mite would most certainly destroy those feral hives that the small hive beetle has not yet wiped out. It would have a huge impact on our farmers," Mr Elson said.
"Managed hives are fast becoming the best option for local growers. I've seen an increasing demand for my pollination services over the past few years.
"For most growers, contracting a beekeeper to bring in hives for the period of pollination makes sense."
He said bees were also susceptible to some pesticides, so farmers may need to juggle the need to spray with the welfare of a permanent colony of bees.
Mr Martin called on growers to "get to know a beekeeper" in order to minimise the impact should the varroa mite reach our shores.