‘Bee force’ set up to stop dangerous threat

By Matthew da Silva 5 May 2011
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A devastating mite infestation threatens to wipe out honeybee colonies, but a stealth force is at work to combat it.

HIDDEN AWAY ON THE rooftops of some restaurants and buildings dotted around Melbourne a stealth force is at work. Its aim: preventing a devastating invasive mite from wiping out honeybee colonies across Australia, as it has done in New Zealand and other countries around the world.

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) has a major role in Australia’s food supply chain, important not just for its honey production, but for its pollination of our many crops. Now, some 500,000 managed hives and millions of the bees living out of wild hives are threatened by the tiny varroa mite, against which they have no natural defence.

Varroa lives off the fluids it sucks out of the bees, laying its eggs on the brood and carrying diseases that infect its hosts, making them susceptible to more infections. Without help from humans, the hives will collapse. Australia is the only country still free of varroa, but this protected status under threat from possible incursions, as the mite can be carried by foreign Asiatic honey bees (apis cerana), which are finding their way here.

“It’s gone right around the globe and it’s everywhere,” says Joe Riordan from the Victorian Department of Primary Industries (DPI). “It’s probably a matter of when – one day it’s going to happen.”

Beekeeper Lyndon Fenlon rides his tricycle en route from his Yarraville hives to his Seddon and Footscray hives. Port facilities such as those shown in the background are considered likely points of entry for the Asiatic honey bee, which can carry the varroa mite authorities fear will damage Australia’s agriculture. (Credit: Tahnia Trussler)

Invasion of Asiatic bees

The Asiatic honey bee arrived in Australia in 2007 in a swarm nestled inside a boat mast, and while there is no evidence the swarm carried varroa, authorities remain alert. In New Zealand, varroa arrived in 2000 along with a swarm of Apis mellifera via a shipment to the port of Auckland, and has since spread through both islands.

“For every managed beehive there was a feral beehive, or a wild hive,” says John Hartnell, chair of the Bee Industry Group at Federated Farmers of New Zealand. “When varroa came along, it killed all the wild and feral hives. So the bee population basically halved.”

“It placed far more reliance on the need of managed bee colonies to be brought in to do pollination work,” he says. “The cost of treating a hive annually for varroa – and you have to do it every year, you can’t not do it otherwise you lose your hives – is approximately $50 per hive.”

And it’s not just fruit such as apples and peaches, and nuts like almonds, which will be affected when varroa arrives in Australia. Vegetables also rely on pollination services provided by feral bees, as well as broadacre crops like canola, faba beans and legumes. Then there’s clover, which feeds beef cattle.

“Probably two-thirds of our food is directly related to bees,” says Gerald Martin, chair of the Research Advisory Committee for the pollination program at the federal government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC).

Bee Force

The RIRDC is now working with the Victorian DPI to ensure authorities find the varroa as soon as it arrives. They have established Bee Force, a group of 10 volunteer beekeepers around Melbourne who have each been given the task of monitoring a sentinel hive designed to catch evidence of varroa, as invading feral bees often try to occupy existing hives. Gerald says that Bee Force is “making one hell of a contribution to our entire food industry”.

Vanessa Kwiatkowski and Mat Lumalasi at Rooftop Honey, which has been operating since November last year, decided to volunteer with Bee Force. They recently received their sentinel hive from the DPI which they installed at the Alto Hotel in Melbourne’s CBD.

Each sentinel hive has a built-in drawer at the bottom which is covered by mesh to stop bees falling through. The beekeeper looking after the hive places a sticky mat in the drawer every six weeks and removes it after a couple of days. The mat is then sent to the DPI’s lab to check for pests.

Sweet restaurants from honey bees

Rooftop Honey runs about 20 hives in and around the city at locations such as the restaurants Trunk in Exhibition Street, Ladro in Prahran and Fitzroy, and La Luna in Carlton. They’re happy to be involved in the work of Bee Force.

“We actually feel privileged to be involved,” says Mat. “We’re really quite chuffed. It’s so cool to be on the front line of early detection and doing what we can to look out for the bees.”

When he heard that authorities were looking for volunteers, Lyndon Fenlon also put his name down for Bee Force. Lyndon has been keeping bees for a number of years and now operates almost 30 hives in Melbourne’s suburbs. He says he’s “honoured” and “extremely proud” to be involved.

“I feel it’s the least that I can do,” he says. “When you’re into bees you’re into everything else that goes with it. It’s not just bees that you get into; you learn about [the] environment, the food chain, everything else. It’s a delicate balance. Considering how many threats there are out there in the world, we’ve got off pretty lightly in Australia.”

Most people who are into bees and beekeeping would like it to stay that way, he says. “When I’m talking to the small beekeepers they love the concept and they want to help,” says Gerald.

If the program is seen to be effective it may be rolled out to other areas of Australia, says the DPI’s Joe.