Varroa mites threaten the honey and beekeeping industries

Dr Cooper Schouten, a bee expert from Southern Cross University, said if the varroa mite becomes established in Australia it could cost the bee industry $70 million a year.

But it would also have significant impacts on the provision of pollination services for horticulture industries, he added, at a cost of up to $14.2 billion a year.

Hitchhiking bees

“Having first appeared next to Newcastle Harbour, the mites most likely hitchhiked with a colony of wild bees on a container ship. The mites are being analyzed to determine which country they came from and which virus they can be carriers,” Dr. Schouten said.

“These mites cannot reproduce on our native bees or harm them directly, but the viruses that the mites may carry could have the potential to spread.

“Varroa mites affect every other major beekeeping industry in the world except Australia. The discovery has sent NSW into a bee lockdown – no honey bees or beekeeping equipment allowed to be moved through the state with heavy penalties for violations – as authorities aim to eradicate the parasite.

Almond grower Select Harvests has warned pollination of its 2023 crops is at risk if the varroa mite cannot be eradicated.

It was detected in Newcastle Harbor last Friday, putting all NSW hives on ‘blocking’ orders. Mites have since been detected 65 kilometers away and are linked to the same outbreak.

Select Harvests said 29% of its orchards, which are in New South Wales, were affected by the standstill order and a further 11% depended on New South Wales beehives.

“Obviously this is an extremely serious issue for Select Harvests and Australia’s food safety,” chief executive Paul Thompson said.

Shares of Select Harvests fell nearly 5% on Wednesday to $5.01.

University of Sydney biochemist Professor Joel Mackay is working on the design of selective insecticides that could strike Varroa mites without harming bees.

“We’re hoping to establish a more robust control strategy for when varroa pushes through our defenses, which have held up quite well so far,” he said.

“Most insecticides aren’t selective – they kill many insects, not just the ones you’re trying to target – so we’re looking to change that.”