Bee hatch

Bee populations face multiple challenges as Varroa mite and La Niña make spring difficult

As spring flowers begin to bloom and temperatures warm, vulnerable bee populations are beginning to emerge for what will be their busiest time of the year. the girl

But the predicted wet La Niña conditions may present a challenge for bees foraging for pollen among limited flowering plants, in their efforts to support healthy hives and feed hungry swarms.

Gippsland beekeeping enthusiast and educator Bill Ringin says swarming is a common occurrence in the spring.

“Swarming is the natural process of bees where, mainly if the colony is too crowded, the old queen and about half the bees will decide to make another hive,” the man from Trafalgar East said.

Having kept bees for the past 60 years, Ringin observed that the bees generally stayed at a close distance from the mother hive, making joint decisions to set up camp in different locations.

“Before the swarm leaves the parent hive, the queen will have laid eggs in cells called queen cells that worker bees prepare,” he said.

“This then provides the original hive with a new queen.”

Mr. Ringin has had as many as 50 hives at a time in his six decades of beekeeping. (ABC GippslandRachael Lucas )

Only mating for a few days during her life, the queen lays two types of eggs; an infertile egg which will hatch into a male bee, and a fertile egg which is fertilized with sperm stored in its abdomen which will hatch into a female worker bee.

A bee becomes a queen bee when a cell is fed a special nutritional secretion called royal jelly, which allows the larvae to develop reproductive organs and reach a point of sexual maturity.

Mr Ringin said that when these queens hatch, one of them will take over the leadership of the original colony.

Bees photographed crawling on the wooden shelves of a beehive
Mr. Ringin educates budding beekeepers on the behavior of bees.(ABC GippslandRachael Lucas )

Reduced ecosystems impacting bee populations

Mr Ringin said environmental changes, habitat loss, nutritional limitations of monoculture species in large-area crops and the cumulative effects of chemicals and insecticides used in intensive agriculture have all contributed to the decrease in bee populations.

“We don’t really measure how these things interact,” he said.

“All we care about is whether a particular crop looks more appealing or keeps a little longer on the shelves or maybe its flavor is improved.”

“It might be beneficial for horticulturists or for humans, it might not be beneficial for the rest of the environmental creatures around us.”

Stay vigilant against Varroa

Australia was in the enviable position of being the only country on Earth without Varroa, Mr Ringin said.

“We had a few incursions into Australia but managed to get them under control,” he said.

But the recent re-emergence in New South Wales of the parasitic vector mite that feeds on the soft tissue of bees is concerning, he said.

Mites on a bee
Varroa mites can pierce the skin of bees, infecting them with harmful insects, viruses and bacteria.(Provided: NSW Department of Primary Industries)

“You can kill Varroa by freezing it, but if you’re looking at large acreage farming and lots of beehives, you just can’t control it that way,” he said.

“Varroa is very good at hitchhiking on bees and then switching between bees, which can then potentially move it from an infected colony to an uninfected colony.”

He said current drugs risk compromising the overall health of bees or contaminating bee products, such as honey.

He also notes that Varroa mites can develop resistance to various chemicals, only a few of which are legally approved for mass use in Australia.

Man holding a smoking can in a carport
Mr Ringin with his smoker, which is used to calm the bees. (ABC GippslandRachael Lucas)

“The other way to try to control varroa is to look at the bees we have. Can we breed a bee that is more tolerant to varroa or resistant to varroa,” he said.

Bees are generally protected from most viruses and bacteria via an exoskeleton, but the ability of Varroa mites to pierce the skin of bees makes the bee vulnerable to a viral load of insects, viruses and bacteria.

As the mite impairs bee development, infected bees will most likely have a shorter lifespan, become more lethargic and sensitive to a range of health foods.

If the bees are unable to defend themselves, they risk being invaded by other colonies of bees seeking to plunder their reserves, which can subsequently contract Verroa and related diseases.

lonely pile of beehives in a backyard
Mr Ringin says it is important for beekeepers to understand how to properly care for bees.(ABC GippslandRachael Lucas)

Mr Ringin said commercial European honey bees were particularly vulnerable to Varroa as they did not evolve with the disease.

“When Varroa enters European honey bees it has a devastating effect. Over time it kills the hive and all the hives it reaches,” he said.

Mr Ringin said it would take a concerted and vigilant effort by authorities, farmers and beekeepers to monitor and protect individual bee populations against the ongoing threat of Varroa, as researchers strive to find a solution.

“If you can get biological control rather than pharmaceutical or chemical control, you’re probably much better off,” he said.

“Biological control will leave you with minimal residue and hopefully more protection to develop a tolerance.”