Bee populations in Australia facing threats from weather to pesticides and disease

Published in the District Bulletin on September 10 2014.

Australia is facing a major biosecurity threat from a parasite known as the Varroa mite. Of most concern is the crippling effect the parasite may have on Australian agriculture, with bees responsible for the pollination of, by number, 65 per cent of crops, including canola, apples, and cherries.

The Varroa mite is a devastating threat to the European Honey Bee, the main bee species used in plant propagation and honey production in Australia, and the Asian Honey Bee, native to many neighbouring countries and islands. The parasite first emerged in the 1950s in Japan and Korea before spreading throughout Europe, America, Africa and parts of Asia, but of most concern to Australia is its recent presence in New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

Symptoms include reduced weight, impaired flight, lower foraging capability, and wing deformation, that colony-wide cause harsh population reduction and scattered brood nest. The danger to Australia is the parasite spreading through the transport of infected hives, as well as the mite being inadvertently carried here in the mast or other parts of container ships.

Local bee expert Scott Williams, owner of Bees R Us in Braidwood, warns that the Varroa mite is the biggest threat to not only bees, but Australian agriculture, and it is only a matter of time until Australia is no longer isolated from the threat.

“Australia is the only country in the world without Varroa but it won’t stay that way forever,” said Williams. “Not if but when Varroa hits it will have a devastating effect on agriculture country wide.”

According to Williams, commercial beekeepers and hobby framers in the local region would be impacted by the spread of Varroa mite into the country.

“Crops are affected in a big way without pollination from bees, it’s called the shock factor,” Williams explained. “There are a lot of farms around that would be affected without bees, [including] apple orchards, lucerne crops, and lavender farms, among others.”

Independent South Australian senator Nick Xenophon has introduced a senate investigation tasked to address these threats to Australian bee populations, named the Inquiry into the Future of Beekeeping and Pollination Services in Australia. The deadline for submissions has now closed, but the senate will release the details of the inquiry in mid-June.

“Protecting Australia’s beekeeping and pollination services is crucial to Australia’s food production. The cost of failure is huge,” Xenophon stated in a recent media release on his website.

“The potential damage to Australian agriculture could run into the billions if there’s a biosecurity breach of a Varroa infestation. “The Europeans have been doing the right thing to protect their bees and crop propagation – why can’t Australia’s biosecurity system?”

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