Home beekeeping boom triggers varroa mite warning from honey industry

Backyard beekeeping is booming, but with the world’s worst bee pest on our doorstep, could well-meaning enthusiasts bring down Queensland’s honey industry?

The Varroa mite, a parasite that spreads viruses that cripple bees’ ability to fly, gather food or emerge from their cells to be born, was detected in New South Wales in June, and since then Thousands of hives have been destroyed as authorities rush to try to eradicate it.

This has caused huge challenges to the commercial beekeeping industry, which is essential for the pollination of crops across Australia, as beekeepers have faced movement restrictions and loss of income and hives in the answer.

But while the number of commercial beekeepers in Queensland has remained static, the number of hobbyist beekeepers has increased.

This comes with varying levels of skill, understanding and compliance with regulations designed to protect the entire industry from pests and disease.

A varroa mite feeds on a bee.(Provided: Alex Wild, University of Texas at Austin)

Are you registered?

Queensland Beekeepers Association Secretary of State Jo Martin hoped the popularity of home beekeeping would not backfire on the industry.

“The rate and increase in the number of recreational beekeepers in urban areas and regional areas was something we never anticipated,” Ms Martin said.

The couple smile at the camera as they hold plastic jars filled with honey.
Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner with Queensland Beekeepers Association Secretary Jo Martin.(Provided: Queensland Beekeepers Association)

Of over 9,000 registered beekeepers in Queensland, only 300 are commercial.

Ms Martin said it was essential that urban and recreational beekeepers register with Biosecurity Queensland so that in the event of an outbreak they can be contacted, advised and involved in the response.

“Varroa carries many really devastating diseases that can cause catastrophic deaths in bee colonies and collectively these diseases will be very difficult to manage,” Ms Martin said.

“Maybe all of us [need to] make a small promise for now to hold us all accountable.

“We need all beekeepers to be registered and carry out their surveillance checks, carry out the alcohol washes and report their findings so that we are as prepared as possible to handle any mite incursion here in Queensland.”

A man in protective clothing inspects a beehive.
All hives should be registered and regularly monitored for biosecurity purposes.(ABC Hobart: Joel Rheinberger)

Check your hives

The Queensland government is ordering beekeepers to check their hives and familiarize themselves with how to identify Varroa mites.

He developed the new Bee 123 form, which can be downloaded through the Survey 123 app and used to report results.

“We’re also calling on everyone if they buy a bucket of honey from their next door neighbor, or maybe at the local farmers market, do your part to protect the welfare of honey bees in the state and ask that person if they are registered beekeepers,” Ms Martin said.

“Protecting biosecurity across livestock and our horticultural industries is absolutely paramount to our freedoms as Australians to access beautiful, healthy produce and also that world-class honey that we so proudly produce in Queensland. “

Sponsorship an alternative

A woman stands next to a painted beehive
Alicia Volhand, lavender producer, offers a bee sponsorship program.(ABC Southern Qld: Georgie Hewson)

At her lavender and bee farm west of Toowoomba, Alicia Volhand has created a bee sponsorship program where locals and businesses can pay for their own hive, which is maintained and kept on her property.

Ms Volhand said it reduces the risks associated with backyard beekeeping.

“I’ve found that a lot of people who want to keep bees buy the bees and buy the [hive]but don’t really know how to take care of them,” she said.

Six colorful hives lined up in a pen
Alicia Volhand says sponsors can choose the color of their hive and have their name stenciled.(ABC Southern Qld: Georgie Hewson)

“I’ve run beekeeping workshops just to teach people how to take care of them if they want to keep them but also if they’re not able to, then having someone who knows a little about how caring for them is an easy way for them to support the environment.

“The sponsor pays to set up the hive – so the equipment, the boxes, the frames – and buy the bees and in return they can choose the color of the hive and have their name inscribed on it.”

Of the 15 hives on his farm, nine are sponsored.

Small hive beetle and dead larvae.
Small dead hive beetles and honey larvae in a beehive.(Rural ABC: Kim Honan)

Small hive beetle threat

Another pest that home beekeepers should be aware of is the small hive beetle.

The Queensland Beekeepers Association warns it has become a major problem in wet and soggy conditions this year.

“Following the recent wet weather spells we have experienced in Queensland, many beekeepers have reported 10% and 15% hive losses to the small hive beetle,” Ms Martin said.

“We actually expect this little hive beetle to be in plague conditions in parts of Queensland.

“We highly recommend beekeepers log on to the BeeAware website as it is a great learning and educational tool on how to deal with large numbers of pests in your apiaries.”