“Marker 9 to 8, two light vehicles”.
Leading our convoy from the passenger seat, slumped in my sweat-stained bee suit, I have taken over radio duties; advising local fire brigades and comms of our movements, on the clock, marker to marker, through this closing window opportunity.
“They must’ve water-bombed up here…” My colleague concludes, as we arrive at the apiary. Expecting to find nothing but smoke and ashes at the first of several remote bee sites, we were pleasantly surprised to find the majority of the colonies still intact and active (at the time, the RFS could not determine if our hives had been spared by this particular bushfire that had swept through hectares of native bush in the Monga National Park).
Biblical is the only way I could describe the scene outside the confinements of our ute. As far as the eye could see everything was soot-black and unimaginably bare, parched dry and smoldering. Stands of dead Eucalypt, one after the other, in amongst clumps of Tea-tree and Black Wattle, burnt beyond recognition. And the smell, you could not escape it if you tried. As if someone had just lit their smoker inside the cab. It was unbearable.
“Marker 7 to 6, two light vehicles”.
We tune into various weather reports on national radio when we can. With the latest update predicting little reprieve on the horizon; extreme temperatures forecasted statewide and changeable winds, which are more than likely to continue fanning flames toward the coast. Tonight the remaining beehives will be shifted further north, a long winded trip to greener pastures.
With no significant rain falling in the south-east for the better part of 6 months, the region had been breaking serious dry spell records even before the fire season began. Coupled with the blazes that grew out of Currowan and Badja/Countegany, 2019 was certainly the year from hell for environmentalists, agriculturalists and livestock/property owners alike.
Unlike most of Australia’s vegetation, many of the temperate and subalpine species that grow in the south-east evolved in the absence of fire and therefore do not recover after being burnt. Several endemic species of Gum, Angophora and some rarer species like the ancient Pinkwood or Eastern Leatherwood can be wiped out completely by one fire.
Not unlike its Tasmanian cousin, the ‘Eastern Leatherwood’ is only known to grow in a select few, elevated pockets of forest on the mainland, (usually forming part of the understory in cool, temperate rainforests) ranging from Bulli Pass in the north to Guaga (Mount Dromedary) in the South. The Eastern-Leatherwood tree is extremely slow growing, (will not flower until ripe old 20-30 years of age) reaching around 15 meters tall, with flowers blooming annually and so intense that it seems like a thick, white veil has been thrown over the forest, while the air is filled with the spicy aroma of its nectar.
Commercial beekeepers transport their hives religiously into the region, from mid to late December through until the end of February. And due to the influence of altitude in the area, some operators will continue to shift their colonies (geographically speaking) from where the warmer, sea-level Leatherwoods first come into flower and relocating them to higher ground, as the blossom progresses.
Although the honey derived from the Eastern Leatherwood tree only makes up a fraction of the state’s honey crop. It’s unique flavour and exclusivity to the region has led to premium pricing in niche markets around the world.
Unfortunately since the fires, this native jewel has all but been wiped out, leaving local beekeepers no choice but to shutdown or re-locate stock even further afield. The price of honey is expected to rise exponentially also, along with the price of a select few fruits and vegetables. A long road ahead beckons for all.