Bee biosecurity: Protecting our honey and crops from varroa mite

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Please note: Images in this article were taken before current COVID-19 safety measures were in place.

Varroa mite is a parasite infecting honey bee colonies in every major beekeeping region in the world – except Australia. Here’s what Victoria is doing in the fight to keep our bees protected.

In June last year, Australia’s bee and pollination industry was put at risk. A ship from Texas docked in the Port of Melbourne and on board was a swarm of bees containing varroa mite – a deadly pest that feeds on bees and transmits viruses to the colony. It was the first time the mite was detected in Victoria. 

Fortunately, thanks to six weeks of surveillance of all beehives within a two-kilometre radius of the Port, no further detections of varroa mite were found. 

Peter McDonald was part of the biosecurity response coordinated through Agriculture Victoria, liaising with government beekeeper surveillance members in the Port about industry structure and policy, and also with the wider industry. As Chair of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council (AHBIC) – the national representative body for the honey bee industry – he knows a fair bit about bees. He’s a fifth generation beekeeper, and with his family, runs a commercial beekeeping business in Castlemaine. Given the honey bee industry is both small and specialised, the involvement of an industry expert such as Peter was essential to rolling out the biosecurity response. 

Peter’s role was equally crucial in helping to safeguard the economy of the honey and pollination industry. Had varroa become established, the financial blow would have hit hard. In Australia, production of honey and beeswax is estimated to be worth about $100 million annually. Added to that, honey bees, both managed and wild, pollinate one in every three food crops – everything from almond to canola to sunflower to apples. Their contribution from pollination contributes on average another $14.2 billion each year to the national economy.

While the Port of Melbourne detection was restricted to Peter McDonald, beekeeper, wearing beekeeping hatimported goods, the varroa threat to Australia remains "very severe," in Peter’s view. Because varroa has spread to the honey bee from other bee species, the honey bee hasn’t yet developed natural resistance, he explains. Consequently, beekeepers need to intervene in order to keep colonies productive. This intervention is expensive, in terms of treatments and also in the efforts involved in monitoring for further treatments.

The main job of the honey bee is to produce honey; they were introduced into Australia primarily for this purpose in 1822. However, they are also vital to Australia as pollinators for a wide range of plants and food crops. 

"In Australia, there are a lot of feral honey bee colonies, living naturally and not being managed by beekeepers," Peter says. "These provide free pollination services to farmers who grow crops that benefit from honey bee pollination in the vicinity that they nest. Varroa would wipe out the vast majority of these feral colonies as they’re unable to survive without human help to keep the varroa populations down."

— WATCH THE VIDEO to see the response to varroa mite detection at the Port of Melbourne, last year.

How the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council (AHBIC) works with the Victorian Government

AHBIC is the national representative body for the honey bee industry. Protecting the industry from exotic pests and diseases, such as varroa, is one of its main areas of focus.

Speaking about the work of the AHBIC, Peter says protection of honey bees is imperative. "Wider agricultural industries that are pollination-dependent need the honey bee protected as their most efficient, economical and scalable pollinator available throughout Australia: this then allows them to produce some of the best produce throughout the world."

In anticipation of a detection of varroa mite, a partnership between AHBIC, Plant Health Australia and the Victorian Government was formed and identified a shortage of skilled honey bee experts who would be able to be part of future responses to varroa. The solution was to provide nationally accredited training for beekeepers so that their expertise could be called upon in the event of an emergency.

Staged in Victoria – due to Agriculture Victoria’s proven biosecurity response capabilities – the two-day training course involved 17 industry people from every state in Australia. Their diverse honey bee knowledge was collated to develop a plan in the event of another threat. This training will increase the pool of people who can effectively contribute to a response next time and ensure the best chance of successfully protecting Australia’s honey bees, and in turn, crop pollination and food production.

"Topics covered included what to expect in a response and how the responses run," Peter points out. "It aims to have people ready so they can hit the ground running and add value to the response from day one. Outcomes achieved were that we now have 17 beekeeping industry people from around Australia who are trained in what to expect in a response, so our capacity to provide a beekeeping industry liaison role across Australia is now in place.

"It’s nationally accredited training in emergency management," he adds. "The 17 people from any state can be called in to help another state to improve capacity for a longer response. As part of the training, it exposed many beekeepers to the formal response and gave them more information about how governments – in this case, Victoria – undertake serious responses to exotic pests and diseases – a very valuable exercise to inform the industry about the professionalism and experience of Agriculture Victoria staff."