In the last two weeks, Australian authorities have exterminated millions of honeybees in a bid to prevent a potentially devastating parasitic plague affecting the southeast region of the country.
The recent outbreak of the deadly varroa mite, a sesame seed-sized parasite that was first spotted at a port near Sydney last week, poses a massive threat to the country’s multimillion-dollar honey industry.
Colonies of honeybees have been put under “lockdown” as part of a wide range of biosecurity measures to limit the outbreak. “It is critically important that beekeepers in the Newcastle area do not move any hives or equipment in or out of the area,” said the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council.
Australia is the last major honey-producing nation to be hit by a varroa mite plague and is taking the measure to kill thousands of honeybee colonies to stop the mites from spreading.
Australia is one of the few countries to have remained free of the varroa mite but its strict border biosecurity controls have been breached. The parasitic mite, which is the size of a pinhead, was detected at the port of Newcastle, north of Sydney, more than a week ago and has spread to other hives in the state of New South Wales.
An eradication zone has been set up within a six-mile radius of a sighting, already implicating many bees, as authorities fight to prevent a plague that has affected the rest of the world.
“Australia is the only major honey-producing country free from varroa mite,” Satendra Kumar, chief plant protection officer of New South Wales state, told The New York Times. Satendra told the newspaper that a widespread varroa mite plague could cost Australia’s honey industry $70 million a year.
According to the website BeeAware, varroa mites – or the Varroa destructor – feed and reproduce on larvae and pupae of the developing brood of bees. They affect bees’ ability to fly, gather food, and produce honey.
The mite has been blamed for the sharp reduction in the number of honey bee colonies outside Australia, and a rapid fall in the size of honey yields, as per the reports. The mite was first discovered in Australia at the Port of Newcastle in late June, and honey producers have been on lockdown since.
Victoria, Queensland, and South Australia have temporarily banned bee products from neighboring New South Wales. Tim Jackson, the chief executive of Almonds Australia, an industry body representing growers, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that he hopes it is not too late to eradicate the destructive pest.
Experts say varroa mite numbers build up over time, eventually killing honeybee nests and hives if chemical treatments are not used. The loss of bee colonies damages the production of honey and the pollination of crops that supply about one-third of the foods humans eat. The pests have been found in much of Asia, Europe, the United States, and South America.
Australia has previously eliminated isolated varroa mite outbreaks in Victoria in 2018 and on three occasions in Queensland between 2016 and 2020, but the current infestation is far more widespread. It threatens to cost Australia’s honey and food production industries millions of dollars and could have global ramifications. Australia is a major supplier of the queen and hive bees to North America, the Middle East, and Japan.
What is the Varroa mite?
The Varroa mite, or Varroa destructor, is a parasitic insect that attacks and feeds on honeybees. Officials have warned that the tiny pests are red-brown in colour, and the tiny pests are known to kill entire colonies of honeybees. They often travel from bee to bee and also via beekeeping equipment, such as combs that have been extracted. Over time, as the mite population increases in bee colonies, the symptoms grow more severe. Generally, heavy infestations lead to crippled bees, impaired flight performance, lower rate of return to the colony after foraging, and reduced lifespan.
Why do bees matter?
According to a report by FT, the latest lockdown could adversely impact the growth of several crops — including almonds, macadamia nuts, and blueberries — that are dependent on hives for pollination.
The varroa mite infestation comes at a time when the country’s agricultural industry is already dealing with a sharp increase in energy prices due to the Russia-Ukraine war, supply-chain issues, bushfires, floods, and a recent mouse plague.