Bee mites

Verses the Varroa

  • In June 2022, the arrival of a tiny mite in Australia marked a pivotal moment for the nation’s European honey bee keepers. The Varroa destructor mite, present in practically every other country except Australia until then, was detected in New South Wales, sparking concerns among farmers and beekeepers nationwide.

  • Understanding the threat
    The Varroa mite, a minuscule red-brown parasite – also known as Varroa destructor – poses a significant threat to honey bee populations and the pollination services they provide. Known for preying on honey bee larvae and pupae, these mites not only deform developing bees but also transmit various viruses. The implications are profound, as honey bees are essential pollinators for a multitude of crops crucial to Australia’s economy and food security, and also produce honey.

  • Biggest biosecurity response in Australian history
    Initially, efforts were focused on eradicating the Varroa mite entirely, reflecting a proactive stance towards preserving honey bee populations. The May 2023 article from The Conversation titled: ‘Australia is in a unique position to eliminate the bee-killing Varroa mite. Here’s what happens if we don’t’, stated: ‘Australia is different from other Varroa infected regions of the world. Our incursion was smaller, it was identified early and the management zone is small enough to be feasibly eradicated.’ The writers did qualify this by also arguing that even if Varroa
    spread in Australian landscapes, ‘Australia could organise state-wide integrated pest management approaches.

    ’Realising that the mite was not going to be eradicated, and as the mite’s rapid spread became evident, the strategy evolved towards mitigation and research. This provided a multi-faceted approach to address the emerging threat effectively.
  • The National Management Group (NMG) swiftly approved the Transition to Management (T2M) plan for the Varroa mite. This comprehensive strategy aims to bolster resilience and mitigate the ongoing impacts of Varroa mite naturalization across Australia’s beekeeping and pollination-dependent industries. Spearheaded by the Consultative Committee on Emergency Plant Pests (CCEPP) and the NMG, this response effort represents the largest multi-agency plant biosecurity response in Australian history.
  • This strategy has had a measure of success – as reported by the NSW Department of Primary Industries, as of April 2024, the mite is still contained to NSW.
  • Implications for industry
    The introduction of Varroa destructor mites poses profound implications for Australia’s agricultural landscape. European honey bees, which form the backbone of the country’s commercial bee industry, are particularly susceptible to these parasites. The implications extend far beyond honey production as these industrious insects play a vital role in pollinating a myriad of crops essential for Australia’s economy and food security.
  • Fruits such as apples, nuts such as almonds, and high-value commodities like coffee and cocoa all rely on pollination services provided by bees. Estimates suggest that the value of pollination services from managed honey bees in Australia reaches up to $6 billion annually. The potential disruption to these industries underscores the urgency of effective Varroa mite management strategies.
  • Community engagement important
    While professional beekeepers are at the forefront of combating the Varroa mite infestation, community engagement is also important. Individuals can contribute to the effort by supporting bee research and habitat conservation. As reported in a February 2024 article from The Conversation titled: ‘As Varroa spreads, now is the time to fight for Australia’s honey bees – and you can help’, the public can assist through actions such as ‘collect(ing) bees before the inevitable rapid spread of the mites, and the mass die-offs, occur’.

    How can you do this, you ask? The authors state: ‘The most efficient way to collect bees is to go to a local cleaning, such as a sports oval surrounded by forest… honey bee males (that is drones) congregate at these sites by the thousands on sunny afternoons looking for mates. 'It is then advised to ‘lure them with some queen pheromone suspended from a balloon and sweep them up with a butterfly net. Bee drones have no stinger and only come out for a couple of hours when the weather is fantastic.’ If you are interested in doing this research work, click here:
  • Encouraging pollinator diversity
    The arrival of the Varroa mite highlights the necessity of promoting pollinator diversity in agriculture. Conservationists and biodiversity experts argue that Australia must decrease its reliance on European honey bees and explore the use of other native pollinator species, such as native stingless bees such as the Tetragonal carbon aria and Blue-banded bees. These native species have shown effectiveness in pollinating various crops: fruits such as lychees, watermelon, blueberry, mango and avocado; nuts such as almonds, and essential commodities such as coffee and cocoa.

Author: Isabella Adonailo