Varroa mite: are we ready?

Honey bee parasite threatens horticulture industry


Horticulture
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The first evidence has come from Biosecurity Queensland that the honey bee parasite Varroa mite is here.

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For more than 10 years now the national government and its agencies have worked to raise awareness about the threat of Varroa mite. At many forums horticulture has been warned of the ramifications about when (not if) Varroa mite establishes in Australia. We now have the first evidence from Biosecurity Queensland that this devastating pest is here.

While we are dealing with Varroa jacobsoni rather than Varroa destructor, the experts say it is just a matter of time before jacobsoni will cause as much damage as destructor.

As usual, Queensland has been the first State in the firing line and as predicted the first infestation was found at a major port. It has made the jump from Papua New Guinea, where it is established, to Australia. How long will it be before the pest is declared ineradicable?

Australia's horticulture industry is under threat with the discovery of the honey bee parasite Varroa mite.

Australia's horticulture industry is under threat with the discovery of the honey bee parasite Varroa mite.

Biosecurity Queensland has confirmed the mite was found in a feral Asian honey bee hive found in late June by local stevedores at the port of Townsville. Surveillance of the area has turned up a second site at Annandale, a suburb nine kilometres away.

Restrictions, within a 10 kilometre radius, have now been imposed on the movement of bee hives, bees, bee products (excluding honey) and used bee keeping equipment to prevent the spread of the mite.

Varroa mite is the world’s most devastating honey bee parasite and up until now Australia has been the only country free from it.

Varroa has the potential to wipe out feral populations of European honeybees and significantly harm commercial hives, with flow-on effects for the pollination of valuable crops, particularly in horticulture.

Pollination is critical for dozens of horticultural crops including almonds, apples, avocados and cherries, and is also important for pastures, fodder and some broadacre crops.

Due to the large number of wild European honeybees in Australia, their vital role in pollination is not widely recognised or valued.

However, experts say Varroa mite could diminish to insignificance the contribution from incidental pollination within 5-10 years.

This will leave many horticulture industries without the means to pollinate their crops unless they hire hives. But do we have enough managed honeybee hives in Australia to meet demand? And what restrictions will be placed on the movement of hives from area to area if areas are quarantined due to varroa outbreaks?

The study Pollination Aware from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation suggested that if pollination by wild European honeybees was eliminated by Varroa mite, almost 480,000 colonies of honeybees would be needed to provide the necessary pollination services. The study was written several years ago and that number is likely to be far greater as horticulture has expanded.

Horticulture has had more than 10 years to get ready for this. But as we have seen with the withdrawal of certain important agricultural chemicals there is a difference between hearing about a major threat and actually having it impact your business.

With the introduction of the two new Biosecurity Acts nationally and in Queensland this month the emphasis is on shared responsibilities and obligations for farmers and governments.

The costs involved in surveillance, containment and eradication of major pests are high and some would argue ineffective (the spread of fire ants is a case in point). However, Queensland should not be expected to bear the cost of the efforts to control Varroa alone where the pest concerned will have major ramifications for the national industry.

Growcom is committed to working with government and other agencies to assist in containing this latest threat to the development of horticulture in this state and nationally. We call on the national and Queensland governments to work together and properly resource attempts to control this pest adequately.

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