Beetle pest turning bee hives to slime

By AG Staff with AAP 22 September 2010
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An introduced African pest is reducing 50 per cent of Queensland beehives to a slimy mess.

Read more about native Australian bees and see our gallery of different species.

waging war on Australian bees, with researchers warning it could decimate the commerical bee industry and push up food prices.

Queensland scientists are leading the push to determine just how much damage the African small hive beetle is doing, and early results are deeply worrying, they say. University of Queensland entomologist Bronwen Cribb says an initial survey of the state’s licensed beekeepers showed smaller backyard operators took a major hit from the beetle in 2009.

Beetle ‘slimes out’ the hive

The pest, first detected in Australia in 2002, destroyed one in two
backyard beehives in Queensland last year. Large industry beekeepers
also reported a five per cent loss. But that figure is expected to be
significantly higher when the results of a follow-up survey, carried out
earlier this year, are finalised. “It will be higher, we just don’t
know how much higher,” Bronwen Cribb says. She adds that the insidious
beetle has crept up on the industry and if it’s not controlled it will
have very serious consequences for beekeepers, honey production and some
food crops.

“It’s not just our honey industry that’s at stake. Without bees,
biodiversity in our flora and the pollination of our fruit and
vegetables is at risk – we don’t want more upward pressure on prices,”
she says. “This includes crops such as pumpkins, kiwi fruit, apple,
cherry, plums, apricots, peaches, pears, strawberries and to some
extent, nectarines.”

It could also harm Australia’s bee export industry. Australian bees are sought after because the population has not been hit by the Varroa mite, which has decimated bee populations overseas. Bronwen has teamed up with the Queensland Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation to develop beetle traps to kill or catch the invader without harming the bees.

Death sentence

“The beetle doesn’t attack the bee but what it does is it gets into the hive and lays its eggs inside. When the grubs hatch out of the eggs they dig through and eat the pollen and the baby bees,” she says. “The beetles carry with them yeast, which ferments and forms what’s called ‘a slime out’, where the hive melts down and becomes a slimy mess. So you can look at your hive one day and a couple of days later it’s gone. The bees may stay at the rotten hive or leave, but either way it’s a death sentence.”

Bronwen says efforts are centred on a range of possible solutions including “odour traps” that will aim to harness the beetle’s natural attraction to already infested hives. Another possible solution is powdered diatomaceous – a sedimentary rock formed from the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae. “There’s some anecdotal evidence that putting this in little trench traps inside the hive can control the beetle, so we’re looking at that too,” she says.

Funding is urgently needed to address a serious problem that’s received little attention, Bronwen says. “We’ve had to get the data together to prove there’s a case. The sooner we get on top of this the better.”

Read more about native Australian bees and see our gallery of different species.

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