Varroa Mite worries the future of beekeeping

Beekeeper Bronwyn Woods traveled to New South Wales to help contain the Varroa mite outbreak. Photos: PROVIDED.

By Mikayla van Loon

Beekeepers in Victoria have received a warning about a fast-spreading and destructive pest, not only with the potential to change beekeeping habits but also the growth of fresh produce.

Bob’s Beekeeping Supplies manager Bronwyn Woods said varroa mites were first discovered in Australia on the New South Wales coast on June 22.

“We’ve had a few incursions that we’ve been able to stop in the past, but this means our biggest incursion and it started at Newcastle,” she said.

Varroa mites lay one male egg and between two and 16 female eggs in each cell, which means their numbers can spread and increase rapidly.

The Watsons Creek beekeeper recently volunteered to help with Varroa Mite containment efforts in Newcastle, co-ordinated by the Department of Primary Industries and the Rural Fire Service.

“We would go to addresses during the day and do surveillance checks and once we were done at one address, we would go to the next address,” Ms Woods said.

“The surveillance checks were really based on where other mites had been found and so they were trying to map how far they might have spread.”

Covered head to toe in protective gear, including coveralls, gloves and veils, Ms Woods said everything had to be doused in alcohol to enter and exit a site.

Having helped during the resumption of the Black Saturday bushfires, Ms Woods said the response was very similar and “it was basically everyone on deck, there was the same level of management and layers of complexity but without the flames”.

Varroa Mite is a small, reddish-brown external parasite of the honeybee, found in most major beekeeping operations around the world, that can kill any hive if left untreated.

“It’s extremely concerning. It’s devastating,” Ms Woods said.

“In Australia, every third bite we have in our diet can be attributed to the bee. So as soon as we have something that impacts our bees, it impacts our entire farming system.

An incursion of the mite has already been located in a blueberry in New South Wales, worrying surrounding macadamia and raspberry growers who can no longer have beehives on their farms.

“In the Sunraysia region of Victoria, we are looking at massive crop impacts on all of our stone fruits. And the almond industry will not have enough hives to meet the requirements for creating almond crops this year.

“Tens of thousands of beehives are missing in Victoria, to perform the scale of pollination they need every year and so this has an impact on beekeepers, but also on our agricultural industry.

“It also impacts us on a day-to-day basis, because this flow will be huge. There will be huge increases in our fruits and vegetables that we buy from the store, they just won’t be there.

Along with the lack of produce, Ms Woods said the mental health of many beekeepers and farmers had already been affected, particularly in New South Wales where they have experienced fires and floods over the past two years in addition to a pandemic.

Ms Woods said one of the benefits of not having had many problems with the Varroa Mite in the past means Australia can look at how other countries have handled outbreaks and incursions.

But one of the only ways to control the pest is through the use of chemicals in the hive, which Ms Woods said here in Australia beekeepers have never had to do, boasting of the most efficient beekeeping methods natural.

“This is a management scenario. So once we have it as a country, we’ll probably run it the same way across the country, even if our regions don’t have it.

“It’s more about thinking about the life cycle of the pest. So there will be times when it will be able to reproduce quickly and other slower times and then the way we manage our brood in our hive will be impacted.

“The impact will potentially be fewer bees at a time of year when we want to be foraging and the repercussion of that will be a lower ability for our hives to collect nectar and therefore, as beekeepers , a lower capacity to have a higher yield.”

As part of a bee club with other beekeepers in the Yarra Ranges, Ms Woods said most people apprehend Varroa Mite.

“People are really worried about the consequences of having to go from having no chemicals at the moment…to having to learn a whole new way of managing bee hives because of one particular mite.

“It can be quite overwhelming. So apprehensive and overwhelming would probably be the right words.

Beekeepers or farmers who would like advice or information on Varroa can contact the Alien Plant Pest Helpline on 1800 084 881.