Ensuring a world with honey

By Alexandra Martin

The Australian scientist who discovered the mite that has been wiping out the world’s most valuable insect, the European Honey Bee, believes there is a way to stop it – if only the government would listen. Speak to world leading bee pathologist, Dr Denis Anderson, and he will tell you what the majority of Australians are unaware of – our honey bees are under threat.

The European Honey Bee, Apis mellifera, is by far the world’s most valuable insect. As the European Honey Bee collects pollen and nectar, it is simultaneously pollinating around one third of our food. Over the last 20 years, the world has seen a drastic decline in honey bee populations putting our food security at risk.

 At the top of the list of threats to our buzzing friend lies the Varroa destructor mite. Discovered and named by Dr Anderson in 2000, this tiny vampire-like parasite has been wiping out European Honey Bee populations across the globe. “Without a doubt, the biggest threat to honeybees in Australia is the Varroa destructor mite,” Dr Anderson said. “So far we have been lucky, but it is only a matter of time until Varroa reaches us. I believe that is inevitable.”

 Unable to detect the chemical signal of the European Honey Bee, the Varroa mite co-existed peacefully with its natural host, the Asian Honey Bee, for millions of years, Dr Anderson said. Then in a freak occurrence one mite got lucky, and was able to jump host from the Asian Honey Bee to the European Honey Bee. “The mite has spread around the world on the European Honey Bee, devastating their populations as it goes,” Dr Anderson said.

Since it arrived in the US, in 1987, the Varroa destructor has decimated over 30 per cent of managed hives, and made the wild honey bee population almost extinct. In 2000, it reached New Zealand where it also had devastating effects. Once invaded, no country has been able to eradicate this pest.

 Currently, Australia is the only continent free of this blood-sucking terror and yet, so far, Dr Anderson said the government was doing little about preparing us for its inevitable invasion. “If we were a smart country we would be putting money into building on our past research,” he said. “Not only did we figure out the identity of Varroa mites, and their host relationships with the bees, we determined a weakness there. We should be taking that research forward, and exploiting that weakness, and by the time the mite gets here we could have a cure for it.”

 The cure Dr Anderson is referring to is in the form of a Varroa resistant mite, which he says is a realistic possibility. Dr Anderson says if enough long-term research is undertaken, Australia would be able to protect its European Honey Bees when the Varroa does reach us. “If researchers could go back and figure out what signal the mite recognised on the European Honey Bee, and change it, we could have a Varroa resistant mite,” Dr Anderson says.

 Dr Anderson said current funding was directed at solving “immediate problems”, with none being put into the long-term research needed to protect Australia against pests like Varroa destructor. “Getting funding to do the work is almost impossible,” Dr Anderson said. “Both government and industry are just not prepared to put the money up to do that research.”

 So committed to his cause, Dr Anderson has gone out on his own setting up Bees Downunder – an independent research body reliant on the public sector for funding.  Australia “can’t wait,” Dr Anderson said. “We need to go in and continue the research, so we do not become the next victim in this global epidemic.”

 Dr Anderson said smarter approaches were needed in order to protect Australia. “That’s what Bees Downunder is doing at the moment,” Dr Anderson said. “We have given up on government. And industry are just not funding this type of research, which is in my opinion, what we should be doing.” Bees Downunder relies on the private sector to fund its research. West Australian fashion brand, Honeybees, donates two dollars from every pair of women’s sandals sold towards Dr Anderson’s research into protecting Australia from the Varroa destructor mite.

 Although Australia has so far been spared the dramatic losses of honey bees, seen all over the world, Dr Anderson said this does not mean we should keep our head in the sand. “We have to become more aware, that’s the first thing, of the value of our honey bees,” Dr Anderson said. “We take honey bees for granted. We don’t really appreciate what they do for us. We have to turn that around and look at how honey bees contribute to food security.”

 In the 2009 Pollination Fact Sheet, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation said the value of the honey bee to Australia’s horticulture and agricultural industries should not be underestimated. “Around one in every three mouthfuls of food that we consume comes from the aid of pollination by honey bees,” the fact sheet said. “In Australia, 35 industries are dependent on honey bee pollination for most of their production. Some industries, such as almonds, apples, pears and cherries, depend almost totally on bees for fruit and nut production.”

 Dr Anderson said that the majority of the population does not connect the honey bee with its vital role of pollination. “I think most people recognise honey bees purely from a honey perspective, that they get honey on their breakfast tables,” he said. “But in fact, it’s the other food on the breakfast table that they should be associating with honey bees, because it’s all these foods that the honey bee pollinates.”

 Last month the latest Senate enquiry, The Future of the beekeeping and pollination service industries in Australia, heard the current figures on honey bee contribution to the Australian economy. “Two-thirds of Australia’s agricultural production benefits from honey bees,” the enquiry heard. “Honey bee pollination contributes between $4 billion and $6 billion to the economy annually, and we know that the flow-on food manufacturing industry is worth $111 billion.” With an estimated 99.8 per cent of the feral or wild bee population to be wiped out when Varroa gets here, “Make no mistake, the whole free pollination scene associated with feral bees will go,” the enquiry heard.

 In their submission to the current enquiry, the CSIRO outlined the seriousness of an invasion. “In the event of a Varroa incursion into Australia, it is likely feral bee colonies and poorly managed hives will effectively be wiped out in a period of five to ten years,” the submission said. “The experience elsewhere in the world, including most recently in New Zealand, is that Varroa destructor diminishes the feral honey bee population to the point that they are virtually non-existent. Australian pollination-dependent agricultural industries are likely to go from a position of having a high level of free feral honey bee pollination to a major pollination deficit if Varroa destructor becomes established,” the submission said.

Since 2008, there have been four government enquiries looking at the health of honeybees in Australia. Like many in the industry, Wheen Bee Foundation chairman, Dr Max Whitten, feels government response to these enquiries has been dismal. “It’s very disappointing,” Dr Whitten said. “The politicians involved in these enquiries come up with recommendations, and try to influence the government to do something, and then the government basically ignores what’s been proposed. It’s very frustrating.”

 In its submission to the current enquiry, The Wheen Bee Foundation said a Varroa incursion would cost Australia $70 million annually. A pest surveillance program is funded at just $210, 000 annually. “This figure does not reflect the required tasks and programs that would be needed to seriously attempt to prevent pest incursions, and deal with them swiftly if they did occur,” the foundation said. With such little funding from the government, the foundation said it was unreasonable that “the relatively small, and financially challenged, beekeeping industry is expected to meet the costs of essential biosecurity for the nation”.

 With Varroa diminishing the US feral honey bee population to the point where it is no longer a common pollinator, the CSIRO said America had finally become more appreciative of the role of honey bees. In contrast, Australia continues to have some of the world’s healthiest managed, and feral, honey bee populations.  In the threat of the Varroa destructor mite, will Australia’s government stand up and take notice, or will the nation’s biosecurity continue to be left upon the shoulders of the few who are actually doing something about it?

*Picture by Stavros Markopoulos

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