Queen bees from a national honeybee breeding program are saved from certain death thanks to a plan to protect them from the growing outbreak of Varroa mite.
One of the program’s sites, at Tocal Agricultural College near Newcastle, was placed in an eradication zone on Monday after the mite was detected in nearby properties.
The Varroa mite is a honey bee parasite that feeds on the young of the bees and spreads disease, eventually killing the entire colony.
Since the first discovery in June in Newcastle Harbour, Varroa mites have been detected in 73 sites across NSW, including Newcastle, Coffs Harbor and the Central Coast.
Experts have warned of the dangers the mite poses to Australia’s agricultural industry, which relies heavily on managed bee pollination, but are optimistic about Australia’s strict biosecurity program despite the failure of similar programs abroad.
Until five weeks ago, Australia was the last major honey-producing country to be free of the Varroa mite.
Since then, more than 21,000 beehives have been inspected for Varroa mites as part of the NSW government’s biosecurity program.
Of these, nearly 5,000 hives have been euthanized, a doubling from the previous week.
Despite the increasing numbers, officials have said they are confident the source of any infection is known, giving them hope that total eradication is still possible.
“The good news is that all confirmed cases either have clear links to existing cases or are geographically linked through the relocation of hives or equipment,” Chris Anderson of the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) said in a statement.
CSIRO honeybee disease expert Dr. John Roberts said: TUSEN newspaper the government data was promising, but added a major caveat.
“While there are quite a few sites, we still have everything linked and a level of containment,” said Dr. Roberts.
“But history is certainly not on our side — there has never been a successful eradication of varroa mite.”
dr. Roberts also said the current detection rate in Australia suggests the mite could have gone undetected for months.
However, it is believed that the mites are not infected with honeybee viruses, making them “an entirely different beast,” said Dr. Roberts.
In June, the NSW Department of Primary Industries and industry officials set up a task force to deal with the eradication of the Varroa mite.
They work from a war room in Orange, four hours west of Sydney, where TVs show live detection updates and staff run fake scenarios.
Total extermination is the goal
Because the Varroa mite is so contagious, the program will need to kill every last mite to be successful.
A statewide emergency order was issued on June 26, halting the movement of all bees across NSW.
All bees within a 10 km radius of an exposure site are destroyed within 48 hours, while those within a 25 km radius are inspected for mites.
NSW officials have encouraged people to report wild hives and are offering $550 compensation to beekeeping hobbyists forced to destroy a hive.
The NSW government also announced an $18 million compensation package for registered beekeepers affected by the outbreak.
Life without pollinators
dr. Roberts said the effects of the containment and eradication program will be felt by more than just honey producers.
“I think it’s really surprising to a lot of people how much different crops and grassland industries depend to some degree on pollination,” said Dr. Roberts.
“And pollinators rely on beekeepers to move their hives, sometimes quite great distances.”
Nut, berry and avocado growers are the first to be hit by bee shortages due to the varroa outbreak.
“But until the rest of the year, we have other crops coming up that have pretty high demands on managed bee pollination,” said Dr. Roberts.
State governments have introduced permits that allow hives that have been found mite-free to travel from NSW for managed pollination.
But bee shortages across the agricultural sector are expected to persist until eradication is successful or the program is halted.
Failure is not an option
Although the mite is deadly, said Dr. Roberts that extermination is not the only viable option.
“You can certainly live with Varroa, it’s manageable, but it doesn’t come without a cost,” said Dr. Roberts.
Strong pesticides are sprayed into beehives abroad to kill the mite.
“So that increases costs, and also has the potential to contaminate the hive, and limits your ability to sell an organic product,” said Dr. Roberts.
“And that may not make it possible for some beekeepers to stay in the industry.
Australian scientists are already developing the world’s first hormone-based organic pesticide that is safe for honeybees but deadly to the Varroa mite.
And some experts have suggested that a Varroa mite outbreak could reduce wild honeybee numbers, reinvigorating native bee populations and the native plants that depend on them for pollination.
If the eradication fails, it will be up to the queen bees rescued by Tocal College to maintain honey bee populations and save Australia’s agricultural industry.