Until May 2022, Australia was free of the world’s most feared threat to the honey bee industry: the Varroa destructor mite. Since then, thousands of hives and feral bee colonies in New South Wales, where the Varroa mite has since been detected, have been destroyed in an effort to eradicate the pest and protect Australia’s $147 million honey sector and the $14.2 billion worth of pollination services that bees provide to the agriculture sector.
The eradication campaign is ongoing, but Australia was well prepared in terms of its surveillance, emergency response and the steps that may be needed to live with the pest, should eradication fail. This is in part thanks to ACIAR-supported research in neighbouring countries undertaken over the past 3 decades.
The work has helped the Pacific region develop their honey bee industries and provide new livelihood opportunities. It has also informed Australia’s National Bee Pest Surveillance Program, which has been credited with delaying what the sector saw as the inevitable arrival of the greatest threat to honey bee colonies globally, Varroa destructor.
In neighbouring Papua New Guinea and Fiji, Varroa mite was first detected in 2015 and 2018 respectively. Another equally concerning parasitic mite, Tropilaelaps, has also been impacting beekeeping businesses in PNG for decades but has not yet been detected in Australia.
Productivity and biosecurity
Fiji and PNG are partners in the latest ACIAR-supported bee project, which aims to help increase the productivity and profitability of smallholder enterprises. Southern Cross University (SCU) in New South Wales is leading the 4-year project, working with industry partners in the Fiji Ministry of Agriculture, the Biosecurity Authority of Fiji, the Fiji Beekeepers Association (FBA), the PNG Coffee Industry Corporation, and the PNG Department of Agriculture and Livestock.
Dr Cooper Schouten, a beekeeping expert from SCU, is leading the project and has said that biosecurity is a crucial element. ‘It is critical that our beekeeping industries in the region are able to identify, monitor and manage pests and diseases, understand the reliability and sensitivity of detection methods, and have the capacity to manage honey bee pests and diseases.’
He explained that emerging pests and diseases, such as Varroa mite, undermine the industry by reducing the productivity and profitability of beekeeping. Beekeepers need more support to grow their skills and knowledge to identify and respond to threats. The costs and access to chemical treatments can also be prohibitive.
Varroa mite response in PNG
Mr Shayne Loie Tumae is a second-generation beekeeper from PNG who said when Varroa mite arrived in the country, honey production more than halved. Anecdotally, up to 80% of hives were affected.
Mr Tumae has worked alongside Dr Schouten and Dr John Roberts from CSIRO as part of the ACIAR-supported project, conducting mite surveys and management experiments across PNG. He said this had been valuable in identifying the extent of mite infestations and the available management options.
‘Many beekeepers did not know why their hives were dying. They would bring out their dead hives to show us,’ he said. The ACIAR bee team developed recommendations with the PNG Government and helped to source and secure approval to import a range of miticides to help beekeepers manage Varroa mite infestations.
‘The nationwide treatment has really helped to drop the numbers of mites in the hives, so the farmers get a good crop of honey. It’s been a good opportunity for me to learn more too,’ said Mr Tumae.
Miticides are being used in conjunction with other chemical free and no-cost husbandry practices, which have been adapted from other countries as part of the ‘tool-box of management options’ the project is developing – options Australian beekeepers could also make use of.
Creating a temporary break in the bee breeding cycle by caging or removing a queen bee, or triggering a new swarm, removes the ‘brood’ of developing bees that the mites attach themselves to and feed on. This effectively reduces both Varroa and Tropilaelaps mites.
The project is also trialling new bee genetics, bred for both improved productivity and tolerance to Varroa mite.
The Biosecurity Authority of Fiji worked closely with key industry stakeholders, the Fiji Ministry of Agriculture and the Fiji Beekeepers Association to allow them to receive Australian-bred queen bees earlier in 2022 through the ACIAR-supported project. PNG will receive new queens within the next 6 months. FBA president Mr Nilesh Kuma said members were excited to test the productivity of the new queens in Fiji conditions. He is hoping the new queens will contribute to a more resilient and productive beekeeping industry in the country.
Bee health and surveillance
Apart from mites, the project is also working closely with industry stakeholders to enhance honey bee biosecurity capacity and programs to prevent, respond to and recover from pests and diseases.
These include American foulbrood disease, a fatal disease of honey bees that is endemic to Australia and found in Fiji, but is not yet in PNG. The small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) found in Australia also presents a significant threat to the Pacific region, which is still free of this pest.
As more people become interested in beekeeping in the Pacific region and in Australia, they are also challenged by these pest management issues.
Dr Schouten emphasised that bees, like other livestock, require attention to nutrition, genetics and pests and diseases to be healthy and productive. Otherwise, poorly managed hives represent an ongoing biosecurity risk for other beekeepers and for pollination-dependant industries that rely on bees to produce crops.
ACIAR Research Program Manager, Livestock, Dr Anna Okello, said the incursion of Varroa destructor serves as a poignant reminder of the need to invest in regional biosecurity capacity.
‘The Varroa mite incursion, while tragic, is just one of several biosecurity threats endangering the livelihoods and food security of millions of people throughout the Pacific region,’ said Dr Okello.
‘Australia’s biosecurity capacity is world-class. Our expertise and knowledge are vital in helping our partner countries manage pests and diseases and agrifood systems.
It’s also very much in Australia’s interest that our regional neighbours have the scientific and policy capability to manage these threats.
Dr Anna Okello
ACIAR Research Program Manager, Livestock
ACIAR-funded projects enable Australian agricultural and biosecurity experts to investigate and help our partners to address emerging regional threats before they reach Australian shores.
Other pests and diseases posing a threat to regional health and food security and Australia’s agricultural industries (including Panama disease, fall armyworm, zoonotic malaria, Japanese encephalitis and African swine fever) have also been the focus of ACIAR-funded research in recent years.
‘Responses to biosecurity incursions need to be rapid. If you haven’t already invested in efforts to understand how to manage the threat before it arrives, it’s already too late,’ said Dr Okello.
‘There’s a strong need for greater regional collaboration and long-term partnership fostering people-to-people technical linkages.
‘Deep partnerships and mutually beneficial regional networks are a tremendous asset in developing pre-border biosecurity for Australian agricultural industries.’
ACIAR PROJECT: ‘Increasing the productivity and profitability of smallholder beekeeping enterprises in PNG and Fiji’ (LS/2014/042)