Protecting our bees – and a $4 billion industry

Bees that pollinate crops (worth an estimated $4 billion) are under threat from a devastating pest, the Varroa mites. Beekeeper Lindsay Bourke, a finalist in the 2014 Plant Biosecurity Farmer of the Year Awards, explains how biosecurity – and the bees themselves – can build up our defences.

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Bees that pollinate crops (worth an estimated $4 billion) are under threat from a devastating pest, the Varroa mites.  It leaves them vulnerable to disease and weakens entire colonies and has invaded every beekeeping country except Australia.

“Our bees directly pollinate crops and some, such as apples, pears, cherries and almonds, would completely disappear without them,” says beekeeper Lindsay Bourke. “As Varroa is right on our doorstep I believe that biosecurity is more important in our industry than any other.”

A former chairman of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, Bourke was a finalist in the 2014 Plant Biosecurity Farmer of the Year Awards. He manages 3600 hives in Tasmania and his company, Australian Honey Products, exports a range of products including leatherwood honey, certified organic honey and Manuka honey, which is valued for its anti-bacterial properties, to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He also provides pollination services for over 80 different crops.

Varroa is his greatest fear.

“The Asian honeybee is Varroa’s natural host and until 2007, there were none in this country,” he says. “That’s when we found an incursion in Cairns. There wasn’t enough money to eradicate them so now they’re gradually moving south. We were incredibly lucky that the mites they were carrying didn’t survive the trip but honeybees regularly stow away in cargo and we’ve already caught ones with Varroa attached.”

Building our defences

The first line of defence is to prevent any more honeybees – Asian or European – from entering the country as both now carry the mites.

“We have sentinel hives positioned close to disembarking ports to attract any that come in on the boats,” says Bourke. “In the past, we used traditional hives that had to be checked every few months. Now we’re installing unmanned hives with cameras connected to a central headquarters so we can monitor them continuously. We currently have 20 of these at our most susceptible ports and we’re rolling them out across the country.”

The second line of defence is the bees themselves.

“Some bees inherit what’s called rapid hygienic behaviour,” says Bourke. “They can smell diseases and pests in their brood nest and remove the affected cells before the problem spreads.”

Recently he joined forces with fourth-generation beekeeper Jody Gerdts to test his bees for rapid hygienic behaviour. Gerdts, who is researching Varroa preparedness for a PhD at La Trobe University, has experience of testing bees in her native America.

“Three of the hives we tested showed hygienic results of 90-99 percent, which is as good as any in the world,” he says. “This means we have breeding stock right here that can help us prepare in case Varroa arrives and which will also help to control the diseases we already have. The Australian Queen Bee Breeding Group has a breeding program in place and is already selling hygienic queens to beekeepers.”

Preventing infection

Bourke, a well-known industry advocate, is championing a national program for disease management and also urges individual beekeepers to pay close attention to their hives. His own surveillance and reporting system meets the standards set by BQual, the industry’s national accreditation system, which he helped to establish and continues to promote.

“Some of our hives are 250 kilometres from base but their brood nests are still inspected 10 to 12 times a year,” he says. “The national standard is just two to four. We have also erected signs at our sites asking people to report anything suspicious.

“Bees are always on the lookout for an opportunity. If you have a hive that’s been weakened by disease, stronger bees will rob it of its honey and take this home. That’s how diseases spread, and how the hives of very good beekeepers become infected. For the sake of the agricultural industry as a whole, it’s vital that we all work together to keep our bees as healthy as we can.”

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