KANGAROO ISLAND, Australia: Bees swarm around Peter Davis as he unloads his precious, buzzing cargo into their new home in a part of South Australia's Kangaroo Island that was not devastated by recent bushfires.
After losing almost half of his 1,200 hives of Ligurian bees to the blazes on the island, Davis hopes relocating the remainder to unburnt forest and a food supply of eucalypt sugar gums will save them.
Kangaroo Island, about 15,000km away from the Ligurian bees' ancestral home of Italy, is believed to host the world's last genetically pure population of the species.
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The bees were imported to South Australia in 1885 and officials banned the introduction of any other bee species or honey since, making it a sanctuary for Ligurian bees. Italy's pure stock of the bees was wiped out due to interbreeding and disease.
Bushfires burnt a third of Kangaroo Island over New Year, killing two people and destroying an estimated quarter of the island's 4,000 Ligurian hives as well as the eucalypts that feed that the bees.
"The main tree for food at this time of the year is the Sugar Gum, Eucalyptus cladocalyx, that grows all along the North Coast which has been devastated by fire," another Kangaroo Island Ligurian honey producer, David Clifford, told Reuters. "So we are not going to get a honey supply from that this year and it will take 15 years for it to recover."
While Clifford's bees escaped the flames, he said the insects appeared "very disorientated" and "more aggressive" than usual after they were relocated.
Davis said the destruction has lost him about 20 tonnes of honey for this season alone and cost him an estimated A$500,000 (US$340,000) including lost production from the surviving hives. Ligurian honey is used to make a range of high-end products including hand creams and candles.
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Davis was only able to start moving his hives to a safer home this week, having spent the last few weeks fighting fires.
"We have been trying to protect neighbours, trying to protect houses, livestock," he said.
Davis urged the government to lift restrictions on the island that ban farmers from reducing fuel loads in bushland areas through preemptive burning.
"We wouldn't have lost farms and houses like we have if we had been allowed to burn and use fire as a management tool," he said.