Australia’s wild European honey bees currently provide free pollination to a large number of crops. But this free service could soon come to an end.
Australia is the only country in the world with a significant beekeeping industry yet to be affected by the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), a devastating parasitic mite of European honey bees.
Farm Biosecurity program technical adviser Brad Siebert said: “It is likely that Varroa will eventually enter and become established in Australia. And given that there is usually a 1-5 year lag before its presence is detected, complete eradication would be unlikely.”
The Australian honey bee industry is built around colonies of European honey bees, with about 10,000 registered beekeepers operating approximately 570,000 hives. Honey bees, both managed and wild, contribute to crop production by providing pollination services to many horticultural crops, as well as a few broadacre crops (see Table 1 below).
The impact of Varroa on honey production and pollination industries in Canada, the United States and New Zealand is well documented.
Mr Siebert said: “Once Varroa enters Australia, wild honey bees and the movement of managed hives have the potential to distribute Varroa mite over great distances”.
Based on overseas experience, Varroa mite will progressively kill Australia’s feral honey bee populations and over 3-4 years will kill 95-100 per cent of unmanaged hives.
However, the full impact of an incursion of Varroa will take some years to be fully realised by both the honey bee and horticultural industries. Plant industries that previously relied on wild honey bee pollination will need to start employing the services of beekeepers which will increase production costs and competition for paid pollination services.
The Biosecurity Manual for Beekeepers provides practical advice to anyone who keeps honey bees in Australia, from commercial operators, to backyard enthusiasts and people starting up their first hives.
Each and every beekeeper has a role to play in protecting honey bees from established and exotic pests. Incorporating the recommended biosecurity processes into day-to-day operations is the best way to protect individual beekeepers and the Australian honey bee industry as a whole.
To learn more about honey bee biosecurity, visit the honey bee industry pages. If you spot anything unusual, call the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline on 1800 084 881.
Table from research by ABARES: A benefit-cost framework for responding to an incursion of Varroa destructor (Hafi et al, 2012)