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STANDING COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY - 03/09/2007 - Future development of the Australian honey bee industry

CHAIR —Welcome. Could you state the capacity in which you appear before the committee.

Mr Bourke —As well as being President of the Tasmanian Crop Pollination Association, I am a former national president of national crop pollination. I represent crop pollinating on AHBIC, the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council. On that board I am national disease chairman and national quarantine chairman.

Mr Hoskinson —I am also president of the southern branch of the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association. I have been doing pollination for longer than any other person in Tasmania.

Mr Cowen —I am a member of the Tasmanian Crop Pollination Association, on the committee, and I also represent Pollination on the Apiary Liaison Committee.

CHAIR —Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament itself. Consequently, it warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. It is customary to remind witnesses that giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. The committee has received a submission from the Tasmanian Crop Pollination Association. Are there any corrections or amendments you would like to make to your submission?

Mr Bourke —No.

CHAIR —Do you wish to make a brief statement in relation to your submission or some introductory remarks?

Mr Bourke —Yes. I wrote our submission on behalf of the Tasmanian Crop Pollination Association, but because of my national affiliations there are some parts in it about disease prevention and quarantine and also some national issues. I am also vice-president of the Tasmanian Beekeepers Association. There are a couple of things that I would like to tell the committee. One is that leatherwood is vital to our industry for pollinating. Pollinating crops takes a toll on the beehive, and you have to take them to leatherwood to recover. Unlike our mainland counterparts, who have 10 months of honey harvesting, in Tasmania we only have 10 weeks. So we have to get all our honey in 10 weeks, and it is vital that we have enough leatherwood to go to after pollinating. That is a fact; we cannot do it without it.

Our submission also talked about not having people to help the ageing beekeeping population to carry on their business. That is true. This year, I am trying to get a Korean person to come over. Other beekeepers in the state get beekeepers from the Philippines and Europe. We cannot get people from within our own country to help us harvest our crop and to do pollinating. That is why we really need something like what we had in the past at the Hawkesbury college. Waikato university have put in a pretty good submission to AHBIC, and they look like the forerunner to provide a national education facility for us. But one of the problems would be shipping young beekeepers around the country to this college. That would be at a cost. We need to do that. We cannot have it in different centres. We need to have a centre of excellence where we can train people to carry on our business.

Elevation is vital. We have different sites. Some of them are at sea level and have elevation, and they are premium. But if you have a site with one elevation then it will only last three weeks because it is level and the bees cannot get to leatherwood that is flowering later on higher sites. I think I may have been the beekeeper that Hedley was referring to who came back into the industry. I have had sites since 2003 with Forestry on blue gum stands. I have not had one drop of honey from that. It is not Forestry’s fault; it is just that they are not reliable. It is not like leatherwood. We know to the date each year that we go to the leatherwood forests when it will yield. Sometimes the yield is better than others, but it will yield. It is reliable for us.

Our submission also talked about amateur beekeepers doing work on the surveillance of hives in the sentinel hive program. That is wonderful, and we take our hats off to them. Animal Health Australia are going to take it over from DAFF in 2008. Part of their submission is to pay the beekeepers up to $1,000 for this service. I think that it is about time that that was done. I think that is really good. With respect to the problem in Cairns, one of the problems is that in Australia—with our surveillance and our fight against disease and incursions—we have the states versus the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth has all the expertise.

A couple of months ago I was at Animal Health Australia’s annual meeting, and Stephen Ware from AHBIC and I made a submission to put exotic bees, the Asian honey bee, on the list of the other 64 diseases that we have in Australia. It was a hard task, I can tell you. We had the head vets from all around Australia there, and some of them were speaking against it. We really had to convince and get consensus from everybody in that room. It was difficult, but we did get it and we got it through. So they are now on the list, because they could host varroa destructor.

CHAIR —You have just proven a point that we have picked up in our evidence, that you guys in the honeybee industry are pretty persistent individuals. So well done, to each and every one of you, as far as that is concerned. It is true to say that the states and territories tend to be locking horns with one another rather than addressing the issue—and that does not just cover your industry; it covers many industries. This committee did a very comprehensive investigation on the introduction of feral animals into this country. People forget that animals do not know borders. When human beings start recognising that we will be a lot better off. Mr Ferguson will start the questions.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —I want to ask you about the role of commercial pollinating in agriculture. Is the Tasmanian agricultural sector sufficiently aware of the opportunities they have to take full advantage of the services that you can offer? Are you aware of any unexploited opportunities where you could help with yields on farms?

Mr Bourke —Tasmanian crop pollinators are more aware of that than anybody in Australia. We are pioneers. We even have price lists and all sorts of things. We have written a code of practice for our farmers and our seed producers and for ourselves. We are united. We are more than aware of the benefits of crop pollinating for ourselves and for our country.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —Do you know what the opportunities might be for people in agriculture here in Tasmania to make better use of your service?

Mr Bourke —We do know for sure that if you pollinate crops you will get a better result and you will get more of it. Tasmania is very proud of the fact that we have the largest germinating rate for canola in the world—up to 98 per cent germination, which is wonderful. One of the reasons is that our hives are so strong. They are much stronger than any other hives in Australia. We do not restrict our hives to a full depth bottom; we aim to have three full depths of brood, which is a huge army. The reason we have large hives is that we go into our short crop, which is the leatherwood, straight afterwards. We need to have a big army of bees to get it quickly, like they used to do in Canada before they got varroa.

Mr Hoskinson —I can elaborate on that. It was stated in one of the submissions that leatherwood honey might be more valuable than feeding it to the bees in the wintertime. But what you have to understand is that we go to the leatherwood, and it is a wonderful crop that yields right up till the autumn and the bees are ready to settle down for the winter. So we go into the winter with a vast amount of young bees, we overwinter our bees and they come out healthy in the springtime, and therefore our hives can go forward more because they have got that abundance of young bees. If you do not have a honeyflow that runs you up to the beginning of the winter your queens stop laying and you will have fewer and fewer young bees going into the wintertime and, as the old bees die, you will come out in the springtime with a lot fewer bees and it will take a lot longer to build them up. So it is because of that honeyflow we get that we go into pollination, as Lindsay was saying, with the best colonies you will get anywhere in Australia.

If you try wintering them out on the east coast, where the queen knocks off a bit after January and they go into the winter, they come out with about that many bees and they take so much longer to build up. Without our leatherwood that runs us into the wintertime, we would not have colonies like we have today. We put fewer colonies in crops to pollinate them than anywhere else, I think, in the world, because of that leatherwood that takes us into the end of the autumn and going into winter with a huge number of young bees. It is more important than the honey that we produce from it or anything that you imagine. I do not know whether you want to question that at all, but that is what I want to put.

CHAIR —We want all we can get from you, warts and all. If you want to make some derogatory comments about people or organisations that you think might assist your industry, that is what this inquiry is all about. I will just ask a general question about pollination, coming in there, because your discussion reminded me that there are people who are in the pollination business on the mainland who cart their bees huge distances, from mid New South Wales up into Queensland. What effect does that have on the mortality rate of bees, and how endemic in the pollination industry in this country is the issue of the destruction of bees by overwork as far as pollination is concerned?

Mr Bourke —You overwork the queens. They are the most important part in the hive, and they are the ones that are under pressure by overpollinating. But if you can replace the queens every one or two years you will have no problems at all. People do transport their bees long distances; there is no doubt about that. I am only a little beekeeper, and I did 72,000 kilometres last year, here in Tasmania, pollinating and going to the west coast. It does not do any harm to the bees while they are being migrated, just as long as it is being done carefully and selectively. In other countries, like America, they even do it in containers. They put them in there to keep them cool because they have to go two or three days.

Yes, it is hard on the bees, because they lose numbers while they are pollinating. That is why we need to get them into the leatherwood to recover, to get them through the winter. I could not get some of my bees away this year because they were pollinating late crops, and they are nowhere near as good as the ones that went to the leatherwood and have come back. At one particular site at Cressy I had 17 hives. They now have 50, as I have put some of the leatherwood hives there for the winter, and we are feeding the 17 hives that were left. The leatherwood honey is vital. It is very good quality, and the pollen is good. You breed superbees, strong bees to get through the winter.

While you are pollinating, some of the late crops are really hard for us to get—you see, we make our honey from beekeeping and we also make some from pollinating, but not as much as we do from the honey harvest. While you are pollinating it is a problem, because sometimes you cannot get them to the leatherwood sites on time. I have a fact sheet here. The hives that I got to the leatherwood before 12 January produced 79 kilograms of honey per hive. The ones that went there from 12 January to 23 January produced 60 kilograms per hive. But the ones that were held back pollinating late crops and went there from 23 January to 26 January only produced 40.2 kilograms per hive. If I had got them all there early, I would have got a lot more honey and more revenue, but you cannot do both.

Mr Hoskinson —I would like to elaborate on that. You asked: does the pollinating do any damage? If you go to early pollination and your old overwintered bees have not reproduced young bees and you put them on early pollination, those old bees only last a very short time, and you end up with virtually no bees, only a few young bees and a small handful of bees covering the brood—the first that have hatched out for that spring. So you can do a huge amount of damage to your hive by overworking them. Old overwintered bees, once they go out in the fieldwork, do not last any time at all. You can damage your bees by putting them to work too soon after the winter.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —Are live bee exports something that we in Tasmania do well or is it something that you have identified as an opportunity where we could be better?

Mr Bourke —Thank you for asking me that question. We have a great opportunity here in Tasmania to export packaged bees. In late February and March we have an excess of bees because they breed so well on leatherwood and they are so good. They are fat bees fed on leatherwood pollen and leatherwood honey and we have an excess. Our crop is coming to an end and we have so many bees that they cannot all fit in hives, so we take the honey off and dump the bees out the front and they have to try to get back into the hives. They cannot all get back into the hives, so for a few days they have to camp outside at the front. We have an excess of good bees which we could earn revenue from. However, we have one problem. We have to tranship them to the mainland to get to America and other countries that desperately need them.

CHAIR —Are telling me that you have to take them from Tasmania to the mainland—

Mr Bourke —To tranship.

CHAIR —Goodness me!

—We have to do that. We do not have any direct flights. They go in a normal cargo plane, so we have to tranship them. The problem is that we have a pest that is all over the world but is not on mainland Australia called the Braula fly. It is a little six-legged fly that runs around in our hives, the same as it does all over the world except on mainland Australia. There are ways we could deal with it. We could net it and we could make sure that the transhipping changeover is done at night when there would not be any, but we would need some help to do that.

CHAIR —How does the Braula fly affect your ability to export bees? What does it do? Does it attach eggs to the bees or does it get in with the bees? Is it small? Tell us about it, because this is the first time we have heard about it.

Mr Bourke —Because only Tasmania has Braula fly. You would not have heard about it from the mainlanders.

CHAIR —That is why we need to know about it.

Mr Bourke —They do not want it and we do not want to give it to them either.

Mr ADAMS —How does that affect the shipping?

Mr Bourke —It affects the shipping because they are desperately afraid that it might jump onto their bees.

Mr ADAMS —So they are saying no?

Mr Bourke —They are saying no. We are asked our DPI to talk with people there, but we are not having much luck. We need to do this quickly because we are all ready to do it. We can send many thousands of packaged bees away.

CHAIR —What does it actually do? How does it—

Mr Bourke —It is just a pest.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —Is it a parasite?

Mr Bourke —It is on the bee—

Mr Hoskinson —No, it is not parasite at all. A parasite sucks the blood out of something.

CHAIR —What does this thing do?

Mr Hoskinson —All it does is ride on the back of the bee and, when bees are transferring nectar from one bee to another, it will nip down and pinch a bit off the tongue of the other bee. It is not a parasite at all. The only damage they are frightened of is if a colony collapses. Have you heard of colony collapse disorder? If a colony goes backwards very fast, the bees go out but the mites stay behind and a lot of them will get on the queen bee and that reduces her capacity to lay until the colony picks up again and the mites—

CHAIR —How do you get rid of it?

Mr Bourke —I have that problem at the moment. We have a thing called the Australian queen bee breeding program and I have bees here to assess. When I send the queens back, I could have Braula fly on them. They will drop off the bees if you use nicotine, so tobacco smoke would dislodge them. You cannot get rid of them.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —So you simply cannot ship any bees to the mainland at all?

Mr Bourke —No.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —Equally so, you cannot use the mainland as a stopover.

Mr Bourke —Unless we have a quarantine station. They can go to a quarantine station and be checked before going further.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —So there would potentially be some good income from being able to export these bees?

Mr Bourke —A very good income for all Tasmanian beekeepers.

CHAIR —If you had the capacity to ship them out of Tasmania and you did not have to go to the mainland, it would not be a problem—is that what you are saying?

Mr Bourke —Yes.

Mr Hoskinson —We do not have that capacity.

Mr Bourke —Because it would have to be on overseas airlines.

Mr Hoskinson —If we had the capacity, we would not have the time to assemble quickly the amount that you would have to have for one aircraft here to fly out direct to America or wherever it was going. We would not have the time to assemble those bees, in my opinion.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —Are you saying that, if there were a protocol available to you that could give biosecurity to the mainland states, it would be a huge advantage to you?

Mr Bourke —Yes, it would be.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —That is really the point, isn’t it?

Mr Bourke —Yes.

CHAIR —It is not likely to occur, because it sends a message out of the mainland that we are going to compromise our border security. We will have pressure from the New Zealanders, and we have enough pressure with fire blight now. We will have all those sorts of pressures coming offshore to us. I do not think you would ever get to that position, to be quite frank with you. I have to say to you, with due respect to the Tasmanians, that I would not be in agreement with any movement that would compromise our ability to stop pests or diseases coming into the mainland.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —Is it so that you are talking about exporting bees to other nations where they have the same pest, in which case they are not as concerned about receiving—

Mr Bourke —They are not concerned about that at all.

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON —It is simply the mainland states that present you with the difficulty.

Mr Bourke —In the transhipping. That is two hours on the tarmac at night, heavily netted.

CHAIR —There is a huge export market for honey bees offshore. The classic example that you all know is California, where they have massive problems with bee numbers. We have a niche market there. You will be interested to know that I was in Saudi Arabia, and they actually import bees from the mainland as well. They have no trees or anything growing, but they must have pockets of them somewhere to be importing bees.

Mr ADAMS —I just want to come back to pollination. Tasmania is continuing to grow a reputation for seed production in our growing horticulture industries. We see the Murray-Darling becoming less and less important for food production—fruit and vegetables—in the future. Other areas of Australia are being looked at. If we can get our water production right there will probably be an increase in that area. Look at seed production through the Coal River valley. Do we have an agreement with the farmers federation, the TFGA, in relation to pollination services? We have received evidence that there needs to be new knowledge from the beekeepers’ point of view of what the farmer needs and what the horticulturist needs and the need for the farmers—and their neighbours, to some degree—to know what the beekeepers’ needs are, such as no spraying during pollination. How advanced are we in Tasmania in that area?

Mr Bourke —Not very well, apart from this booklet which we freely give out. I do address the seed companies, but we have not gone very far with the farmers. We do have lots of problems with them.

Mr ADAMS —So do you need material there, more opportunities to grow that? We need protocols and we need to get agreements?

Mr Bourke —Definitely, because we can be pollinating one seed crop, and not far away could be potatoes, for instance. It might not be insecticides that they are spraying, but they use water softeners, which will damage our hives. It is like running a gauntlet. It is very difficult to crop-pollinate, because of the sprays.

Mr ADAMS —I understand that, but that can only be overcome by people’s knowledge of everybody’s needs.

Mr Bourke —Definitely. The seed companies are well aware of it. They spray their crops before we go in. They would like us to get out there as soon as the job is done so that they can spray them again. This last season was particularly bad.

CHAIR —Isn’t that a significant factor for CCD?

Mr Bourke —CCD is caused by a variety of things. We do have nosema, which is a dysentery, and when bees are stressed they can get this. Everything that I have read overseas in the past with CCD is that it is the Asian variety of nosema—nosema ceranae—which our European honey bee has not got much resistance to. But it is a combination of things: it is varroa, old bees coming into the spring and nosema ceranae, and that causes the problem.

CHAIR —I have heard some evidence or read somewhere of an instance of autopsies taken on bees that showed that their bodies were saturated with a huge variety of diseases. Can you make any comment on that.

Mr Bourke —Yes, I can. Dr Denis Anderson went to America recently and had a look at some of these sites that had been labelled with CCD. He came up with the same conclusion: they had a variety of things wrong with them—not all were CCD. There were other diseases as well. Quite often a queen bee will run out of sperm and she becomes a drone layer and the colony is doomed from that. If it happens in early spring, they cannot get a replacement and they die out. That is attributed to CCD as well, as far as Dr Denis Anderson found over there.

CHAIR —We could safely conclude that chemicals and insecticides are playing a significant role in the decimation of the honeybee population offshore, but not so much in Australia at the moment because of the way in which we handle them.

Mr Bourke —It happens here in Australia too because every seed that is sown is soaked in insecticide, which goes up through the plant. It is very harmful for the bees. They get disorientated and fly to the wrong hives. They become aggressive. It is really hard for them. We can only recover them by putting them on a good honeyflow afterwards.

CHAIR —That is interesting.

Mr Bourke —It stays in the soil as well.

Mr Hoskinson —It comes up in the next crop.

Mr Bourke —It can come up for two or three years and can even be more strong in plants that do not need it. For instance, it is in the canola seed and that is for one harvest. Then it is rotated and you could have clover on there for the next two or three years. It will come up into the clover as well. So we get it from below and above.

Mr Hoskinson —You can go on to this colony collapse disease. It has happened to me twice in my lifetime but I have not got time to tell you about it. It happens from time to time because of the conditions and what you do to your bees. It is a variation. It is the world we now find ourselves in with the beekeeping industries. Throughout the world we have not really been considered in anything because nobody recognised the value of our industry. We have been ignored as far as sprays are concerned and our resources are gone.

CHAIR —I think they are getting to understand it now because of the significant publicity this committee has been able to generate.

Mr Hoskinson —They are starting to understand it now. It has contributed. It is the position we find ourselves in today.

CHAIR —You have just been taken for granted, as you have quite rightly pointed out. In the politics that operate outside of our profession, you have been insignificant in terms of the noise that you have been able to generate in the minds of the people who have been your main opponents in getting some recognition. That is particularly so of the environmental movement. It is absolutely disgraceful to see that they are working with governments to lock you out of public lands. Legislation has been introduced into Queensland to protect what—a non-science based view that honey bees have an impact on native bees when they are cohabitants? I am a novice in the game, but I have been listening to the evidence presented to this committee and I have read a little bit and I think it is just scandalous what is happening. When you think that 70 per cent of the honey that is produced in Queensland, similarly to what is produced in Tasmania, is coming from native flora not other sources it is amazing.

Mr Bourke —Eighty per cent of all honey produced in Australia comes from the eucalypt forests. I think it is disgraceful what the Beattie government has done to the working beekeepers in that state. I would like to say that we in the beekeeping community are very concerned about the delegates coming for Apimondia in September. There will be over 1,000 beekeepers coming from other countries. Beekeeping is active in those countries and beekeepers being beekeepers they will look at their hives before they come on their holiday to Australia. Varroa has a habit of being transported from colony to colony on beekeepers’ clothing. It can live up to five days on beekeepers’ clothing. We were very concerned about this. I have spoken to authorities and Mr McGauran has given me a letter saying that they are going to inspect all the delegates coming to Apimondia closely, which is very good because it could be in their clothing. So that is going to happen. Also we are very concerned about losing our quarantine station at Eastern Creek. You must have heard this throughout Australia.

CHAIR —We are well aware of that and we are lobbying rigorously on your behalf on that.

Mr Bourke —That is good. A few months ago we had a honeybee industry linkages workshop. I suppose you are well aware of that too. Out of that Mr McGauran has given us money to do research. That is the DAFF pollinating Australia project, and I am very proud to say that I am on that committee along with seven other people.

CHAIR —That is pleasing to hear. We are quite proud of the fact that, through the secretariat and the evidence that we have received, we have been able to generate a bit of appreciation of how important the honeybee industry is. We believe that it is our work that generated the money that came from the minister to put into that committee. We are very pleased to say that we did an inquiry into rural skill shortages and that is why we decided to undertake this inquiry into the honeybee industry. It was centred around the Eastern Creek facility and how it was going to be shut down because there was no further need for it. So I suppose in many respects the industry working with us, and us working with the industry—and the way we have gone about advertising this through the secretariat—has certainly bought some significant benefits. That is due to a great extent to my parliamentary colleagues on this committee.

Mr Bourke —We love our country and we want to make it wealthy. With agriculture, you did comment earlier that we directly produce about $1.7 billion of income a year. But when you include crops like lucerne, clovers and all those sorts of things then it is actually $3.8 billion.

CHAIR —Yes, that is right.

Mr Bourke —So it is vital. In fact in Australia and throughout the world the honey bee is the most important animal on the planet. You can do without any of the others, but you cannot do without the bees.

CHAIR —The Europeans in particular are envious of our yields over here. I was interested to talk with some German parliamentarians the other day. They do not have our honey bees in Europe and they cannot understand why our yields are higher.

Mr ADAMS —This is one of the issues—and selling our honey to Europe in 44-gallon drums is probably not the best way of doing it when we can add value enormously. I am sure the industry knows all about that. Your submission highlights the problems of American foulbrood and the real difficulty that that poses for us. Can we use antibiotics in the control of that? In Tasmania, how are we going with the control of that?

Mr Bourke —Tasmania, unlike the rest of Australia, has legislated to freely use OTC in the treatment of foulbrood. Yes, you can do it if you do it properly, and Australians are some of the best beekeepers—in fact, they are the best—in the world. We have very good standards. We have a 60-day stand-down from using OTCs before the first crop comes in. We are fortunate that we have four distinct seasons, so we can do this. It is possible for Tasmanian beekeepers to treat their hives with OTC and to have it completely out of the system before we get our first crop of honey. It is a little bit harder on the mainland, where you have honey trickling in for 10 months of the year, but we can clearly do this. We have had tests and things to show that it is not in our product. We do that regularly, so we are very clean.

In fact, Australia is missing out on a vitally important thing, and that is that we are clean and green. We do not have to use chemicals to treat our hives for varroa. For how long that will be, I do not know, but we are missing out on this. We have the cleanest hives and honey in the whole world. In fact, three commercial beekeepers—can you imagine that—are now classified as organic for leatherwood. In my report last year I said, as is my belief, that all of our eucalypt honey could be organic. It is in the eucalypt forests. That is a vital selling tool. Australia should be capitalising on that. Honey in Australia is not a world commodity. Our honey is vastly superior to anything else.

Mr ADAMS —There are two opportunities for new products then: from the beverage side through to the medicine side. These seem to be underdone from an industry point of view. Although the small niche products exist, there do not seem to be new initiatives really getting in there. Do I have that right, or has there been some change?

Mr Bourke —You have got it right. If only we could take a leaf from the New Zealanders. They are masters at—

Mr ADAMS —Adding value?

Mr Bourke —Adding value. Unfortunately, Medihoney has been sold to the New Zealanders too, so we have lost that. But we do produce honey that has those properties throughout Australia, and you could still do it. There are other things too to add on value. A lot of us do it. As you mentioned earlier, if you export a beautiful honey like leatherwood with a lot of strength in 44-gallon drums for somebody to take and add two or three drums of some insignificant, tasteless muck to it, it still comes out at the other end as leatherwood.

Mr ADAMS —Are you talking about Europeans?

Mr Bourke —We are losing something there. We have four packers in the state and a few smaller packers, which is really good. We could pack more of it. With Julian and the rest of the TBA, we are working on something to get an appellation for our leatherwood honey. We are sending a lot of samples away this year to have them analysed and put into a group so that we can get that appellation. That will be a good marketing tool. We need every marketing tool that we can get, and diversifying is one way to do it.

CHAIR —I thank the members of the Tasmanian Crop Pollination Association for your attendance today. It is appreciated. This committee depends very much on the evidence that it receives from its witnesses to be able to put together a report that can influence the government of the day to address the issue and put the funds needed into the industry to keep it going.

Proceedings suspended from 10.29 am to 10.45 am