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Bees and bee pests and diseases

​The Australian honey bee industry is composed of about 13,000 registered beekeepers. Around 1,300 of these are considered to be commercial apiarists, each with more than 50 hives.

The European honey bee contributes directly to the Australian economy with the industry valued at around $100 million per annum with total honey production ranging between 20-25,000 tonnes each year.

Honey bees also contribute to the productivity of many horticultural and seed crops, by providing essential pollination services that improve crop yield and quality. Pollination services have been estimated to contribute between $620 and $1,730 million to the value of Australian agricultural production per annum.

Varroa mite – the major threat to Australia’s honey bee and honey bee crop pollination plant industries

Australia is one of the few countries in the world to remain free of varroa mite (Varroa destructor). If varroa mite were to become established in Australia our healthy population of honey bees, and the pollination services they provide, could be reduced by 90-100 per cent. Restrictions may be put in place on the movement of hives to limit the spread of varroa, which could reduce the availability of hives in some regions. The effects would be significant for apiarists, who would face higher costs to manage their hives, and producers of crops such as almonds, apples and cherries that rely on pollination from bees.

Our department has developed a continuity strategy to ensure that the honey bee and honey bee pollination responsive crop industries, research organisations and all Australian governments are prepared and able to effectively manage an incursion should the varroa mite become established in Australia.

Honey bee pests and diseases

While varroa mite is the leading biosecurity threat, honey bees may be affected by a range of pests and diseases including:

  • Tropilaelaps mite (Tropilaelaps clareae)
  • Tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi)
  • Braula fly (Braula caeca)
  • American foulbrood (Bacillus larvae)
  • European foulbrood (Melissococus pluton)
  • Leafcutter bee chalkbrood (Ascosphaera aggregata)
  • Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)
  • Stonebrood (Aspergillus falvum and A. fumigatus)

Preventing the entry of exotic pests and diseases

Our department undertakes a range of activities to try to prevent the entry of varroa mite and other pests and diseases including:

  • surveillance outside Australia through the International Plant Health Surveillance Program, with our staff developing and implementing measures for the early detection of targeted pests and diseases
  • inspections of people, mail parcels, baggage, ships, animals, plants and cargo containers by our staff to help prevent the entry into Australia of foreign bees and any pests and diseases they carry
  • surveillance within Australia to detect any incursions to enable the pest or disease to be destroyed before it becomes established or restrict its spread.

Detecting incursions of exotic pests and diseases

The National Bee Pest Surveillance Program (part of the National Bee Biosecurity Program) is an early warning system to detect new incursions of exotic bee pests and pest bees. The program involves a range of surveillance methods conducted at locations considered to be the most likely entry point of bee pests and pest bees throughout Australia. Plant Health Australia (PHA), at a national level, coordinates and administers the program, which is jointly funded by the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council (AHBIC), Apples and Pears Ltd, Avocadoes Australia, Raspberries and Blackberries Australia, Strawberries Australia, AusVeg, Almond Board of Australia, Dried Prunes sector, Australian Macadamia Society, Onions Australia, Grain Producers of Australia and the Australian Government through Horticulture Innovation Australia Ltd.

Through the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, the Australian Government has provided a further $587,000 to enhance the successful National Bee Pest Surveillance Program. The funding will contribute to virus diagnostics and surveillance, increase Asian honey bee surveillance, improve remote catch-boxes in remote locations or areas of high risk, and trial Asian hornet traps at key ports. The White Paper is the government’s plan for stronger farmers and a stronger economy.

Improving the management of established pests and diseases

AHBIC and PHA have worked to establish a National Bee Biosecurity Program. The purpose of this program is to improve the management of established pests and diseases, as well as increase the preparedness and surveillance of exotic pest threats of the honey bee industry. The Program will be underpinned by a beekeeping Code of Practice, a Bee Biosecurity Officer in each state to conduct inspections, as well as educate and train beekeepers in biosecurity best practice. Through a statutory industry biosecurity levy paid by bee keepers, the industry is investing around $400,000 per annum in the program.

Protecting your honey bees

If exotic honey bee parasites and pests enter Australia, early detection will be crucial in limiting their spread and impact on the Australian honey bee industry. All beekeepers (including commercial and backyard beekeepers) have a significant role in recognising and reporting any suspected infestation by varroa mite (or other pests and diseases).

Know what to look for. If you suspect the presence of varroa, immediately:

  • phone the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline: free call 1800 084 881
  • implement appropriate controls
  • follow any biosecurity instructions in the event of an incursion
  • don’t try to bypass biosecurity controls aimed at protecting the industry.

It may be necessary to confirm a field diagnosis with laboratory tests. Apiary officers in all states and territories can provide advice on the correct procedures.

Research and development

The agriculture portfolio’s investment in research and development for the honey bee industry is managed by RIRDC. RIRDC has commissioned a range of research projects aimed at improving the management of established bee pests and diseases and improving the prospects of detecting and eradicating exotic pests and diseases before they establish.

More information, including research currently underway and reports from completed projects, is available on RIRDC's Honey Bee and Pollination Program website.

In July 2016 a consortium of partners, led by RIRDC, were granted $5.255 million from Round two of the Rural R&D for Profit programme for the project ‘Securing Pollination for More Productive Agriculture: Guidelines for effective pollinator management and stakeholder adoption’. The project will realise significant productivity and profitability gains for farmers by improving yield and rates of pollination. The project will assess the contribution of pollinators to nine crops, re-establish native vegetation to support pollinator food and nesting resources, and use new technologies to communicate the findings to crop farmers.

In June 2016 Hort Innovation launched a significant pollination research investment fund to increase crop quality and yields through more effective pollination and alternate pollinators. Supported with Australian Government funding, the fund comprises multiple projects being delivered in partnership with co-investors such as research institutions, government agencies or international and commercial enterprises. More information about research currently underway is available on Hort Innovation’s Pollination Fund webpage.

Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) are playing a role in global research networks to better understand the causes of declining bee health in many parts of the world. More recent innovation by CSIRO scientists has led to enormous improvement in microsensor technology for tracking bees in and around hives and the opportunity for new insights into hive health and bee response to diseases or chemicals. More information on this work is available from the CSIRO website.

A range of research groups based at Australian universities are also studying honey bee health. Some of these research groups are:

Many of Australia’s northern neighbours harbour major mite pests—Tropilaelaps clareae, Varroa jacobsoni and V. destructor—that could cause significant damage to our honey bee population. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has funded research, with CSIRO as the commissioned organisation, on these pests for about 15 years, making a significant contribution to a better understanding of the mites and their host conditions.

These projects, carried out in Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, have substantially increased understanding about these pests, to the extent that the picture of their spread and the risks they pose is better understood. There are two major benefits from the research: to beekeeping through better understanding of mite control methods; and to biosecurity procedures through better understanding of the true nature of the risks posed by the mites.

Agricultural chemical regulation

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is the statutory agency responsible for assessing and registering agricultural chemicals for use in Australia.

The APVMA is aware of concerns that insecticides, especially those of the neonicotinoid class, may be contributing to a decline in honey bee populations in Europe and the United States. The APVMA has completed a report (Overview report – Neonicotinoids and the health of honey bees in Australia) on the issues relating to honey bee health in Australia, with a particular focus on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides.

The APVMA’s report concluded that there is lack of consensus in the scientific literature on the causes of regional declines in honey bee populations in Europe and the United States. A wide range of possible causes are being actively investigated including pesticides, parasites, viruses, climate change, bee nutrition, lack of genetic diversity, and beekeeping practices.

Australia is working internationally through the OECD Pesticides and Pollinators Working Group and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry to develop expanded test methods and guidelines for assessing the effect of pesticides on insect pollinators. These expanded methods assess the possible sub-lethal effects of some pesticides on honey bees at very low concentrations (one part per billion and less).

Further information

The BeeAware website is a hub of information for beekeepers and growers about honey bee biosecurity and pollination of agricultural and horticultural crops.

The site contains an extensive range of information about exotic and established pests and diseases of honey bees, and helps beekeepers to identify and respond to these pest threats. It also contains information about the pollination of crops and how beekeepers and growers can work together to provide and receive best practice pollination services.

BeeConnected is a user-driven smart-phone app that enables collaboration between beekeepers, farmers and spray service contractors to facilitate best-practice pollinator protection. It was developed by Croplife Australia in partnership with the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council.

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