24 March 2015

Australian and Israeli science - eucalyptus trees, bush fires, honey and swamps.

 When you travel in Israel nowadays, it is difficult to believe that 150 years ago the south was total desert (60% of Israel’s land surface). Only a small number of trees grew in the south; the trees that had once grown were either taken for wood, eaten by sheep and goats, or died in the droughts. The other 40% of the country, in the north, was covered with swamps ..which were worse than the desert. In the late C19th the swamps caused malaria and prevented people from inhabiting the north of the Promised Land.

The eucalyptus tree was first introduced from Australia to other parts of the world by the botanist Sir Joseph Banks, on Captain Cook’s expedition in 1770. But the eucalyptus was not brought to Israel from Australia until the late C19th. The hope was that this tree would dry the swamps that were causing so much trouble to the settlers.

Although the eucalyptus trees easily adjusted to the Israeli swamps and grew rapidly, they were unsuccessful in actually drying them. But at least the trees created better air in the area and were found useful in other ways. The eucalyptus forests brought bees to the area and improved the honey industry; the wood was used for various purposes, such as railway sleepers and telephone poles.

The eucalyptus trees adjusted well to Israel, from very humid to semi-desert areas, and were easily acclimated. Today eucalyptus trees are found all over Israel in forests, along roads, and in urban and other populated areas.

Eucalyptus trees in the Hula Valley in Israel.
Australians could easily believe this photo was actually taken in Australia.

Reforestation of Israel’s drought-ridden lands has always been of interest to Australia. How could new areas of the Negev be able to flourish and grow, specifically through the conservat­ion projects undertaken jointly by Aust­ralian Jewish National Fund ((JNF) and by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation of Australia? Since 1917 & JNF Australia’s first project of a forest to hon­our the return­ing forces after World War One, the Australian group has engaged in a range of projects that have helped to create an improved lifestyle for rural Israelis. And during the British Mandate, the British took even more Australian eucalyptus trees into Israel.

The Israeli-Australian connection has continued this century. Euc­alyptus researchers and growers from around the world attended a training course in 2008 on eucalyptus forestry; their particular focus were two invasive gall wasps and their natural enemies. After two years the solution was developed cooperatively through the Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Indus­t­rial Research Organisation) and Israeli scient­ists. It HAD to be fool-proof. There are 700 types of eucalyptus in Israel and JNF distributes 200,000 saplings a year free of charge for forestation and bee grazing.

Israel may be a desert, going six months of the year without rain, but local bee populations are thriving and honey production rising thanks to a new flowering tree brought over from Australia. It is not a good time for honeybee populations worldwide just now, yet Israel has 450 bee­-keepers in the country who manufacture 3,600 tons of honey annually for local consumption and for export. But rain is critical. Like other desert coun­tries, the majority of native plants and flowers blossom in Israel only once a year after the winter rains.

After research, the correct eucalyptus plant and bees were chosen.
The bees began to pollinate the flowers while collecting nectar to be made into honey.
Since there are more trees with nectar available, the output of honey is rising.

Of course eucalyptus trees can withstand long periods of drought – they were from Australia! But a new environmental crisis arose in December 2010. With no rainfall for the previous eight months, the Israeli forests became extremely dry, and along with the strong winds and heat, bush fires quickly got out of control. The fire in Israel’s Mt Carmel region caused the death of 44 citizens and destroyed 5000 hectares of forest land. It had been the worst fire to take place in Israel’s national history, and destroyed nearly double the amount that 30 years of intermittent fires in the Carmel had caused. It will take at least 50 years to replant all of the trees that were lost and to bring the Carmel Forest close to its former condition.

Eucalypts are well adapted for periodic fires; in fact most species are dependent on fires for spread and regeneration. So it is not surprising that the fire-loving eucalypts account for some 70% of Australian forests, reg­en­erating quickly every summer. But in this Mt Carmel bushfire crisis, Australia could do nothing to save Israeli lives or forests :( The countries that did send fire fighting aircraft were Greece, Turkey, Netherlands, Switzerland, Russia and Cyprus.

One other agricultural connection between Israel and Australia is worth mentioning. The Arava is Israel’s long, eastern valley between the Dead Sea and Eilat, and although it is mainly desert, 90% of its residents are successful farmers! Some Arava farmers specialise in organic farming and soil-free cultivation, in cooperation with farmers across the nearby Jordanian border. Sharing knowledge is important here; the local government maintains a training centre that welcomes students from around the world.

For example dirty solar panels produce less electricity, but the need to use water for cleaning those panels in dry regions makes even a clean power project less eco-friendly. Solar panels could lose from 10-35% of electricity production over time if they remain unwashed So the newest robots (by Ecoppia) dry-clean each panel, making for more efficient energy production. As agricultural research stations work to constantly upgrade the area’s produce, teams of Australians will spend time in the Arava to find solutions to the challenges of desert agriculture.


Andrew said...

All very interesting. In some places in the world the Eucalyptus is seen as a pest species. Good work on dry cleaning solar panels.

Deb said...

Australia has a bushfire season most summers and we know what to do in advance to avoid deaths. Except for catastrophes like Black Saturday :( But Israel may have had no experience with bushfires.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Your article about the impressive advantages of eucalyptus trees led me to read a little more about them. One new development, coming from Taiwan, is a variety that absorbs large quantities of CO2, making it advantageous for pollution (greenhouse gas) reduction, while also favoring cellulose over lignin production, an advantage in the biofuel industry.

On the down side, its large water requirements are a concern in an age of increasingly limited water and depleted aquifers.

Hels said...


I don't think the Eucalyptus is itself a pest, but I acknowledge straight away that it can certainly attract pests and diseases. And it can be invasive, but more in foreign climes than its own home territory.

Hels said...


No country on the planet suffers from bush fires as much as we do. So we should jolly well have our bush fire plans well in place _before_ summer arrives each year.

We should note that there was an Israeli bushfire on Mount Carmel even before December 2010, and that was in September 1989. Although there was no loss of human life, the damage to animals and bushland was appalling. A warning in times of climate change?

Hels said...


I have always assumed that other countries loved eucalyptus due to their higher maximum height, _lower_ water needs, faster regrowth after bushfires and useful oil production. Many species thrive in near-desert like climates.

But then eucalyptus were also used to drain malarial swamps, so perhaps they suck up whatever water is available.

Student of History said...

Why is it not a good time for honeybee populations worldwide just now? Do you mean the market is not sound?

Hels said...


The world's honey bee population has apparently decreased by 50% since the late 20th century. I don't understand the problem myself but it seems that many agricultural crops worldwide are pollinated by the problematic European honey bees. Perhaps they suffer from the pesticides we use.

Arava Australia Partnership said...

Arava Australia is a program of the Jewish Agency and the Zionist Federation of Australia that promotes people to people relationships through social, cultural and educational programs. The Arava Australia Partnership is delighted to bring a high-level six-member delegation of Scientists, Agriculturalists and Educators from the Central Arava region in Israel to visit Australia for the first time.

Members of the delegation will provide insights into the cutting edge “agri-tech” research and educational programs that enable the Arava to make a significant contribution to feeding the world. The delegates will participate in a wide range of activities including presentations on food security and workshops revolving around Science, Agriculture and Education. They will be in Melbourne from 27th August to 6th September, then in Sydney until 8th September 2015.

Hels said...

Perfect timing, many thanks.

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