How it will affect native bees &
What you can do to help!

Aussie Bee > Native Bees and the Varroa Mite Crisis

by Dr Anne Dollin,
Australian Native Bee Research Centre

Updated Saturday 6 August 2022, 8.00pm

1. The situation so far.
2. What you need to know, if you keep European honeybees.
3. How will Varroa Mites affect native bees?
4. How will the eradication plans affect native bees?
5. Do you have native bees in the DPI red zones? HOW TO SAVE THEM!
6. How native bees could help save Australian agriculture.

varroa mite on European honeybee

Above: a red-brown Varroa Mite parasite on a developing European honeybee. Image by Denis Anderson.

1. The situation so far

The Varroa Mite, a devastating parasite of European honeybees, was discovered in honeybee hives at Newcastle, NSW, on 22 June 2022. Since then, it has been detected at 77 locations in NSW (see red zones on map below). These locations are in the Central Coast and Hunter regions (from Calga to Wards River, about 40k NW of Bulahdelah, and as far west as Denman), at Narrabri, and at Nana Glen, NW of Coffs Harbour. NSW DPI is urgently trying to eradicate the incursion.

The red areas are 10km Eradication Zones around infested sites; the purple and yellow areas are further Biosecurity Zones surrounding the areas of most concern. Click this link to view the DPI's current large scale interactive map where you can zoom in to check precise locations.

Varroa Mites are tiny, button-shaped, red-brown parasites, about 2mm wide. Learn about their life cycle, population growth and more. With their flat bodies, they can burrow between the plates on the abdomen of a European honeybee and feed on the bee's fat stores. This badly weakens the honeybee but, in addition, Varroa Mites can infect the honeybee with at least five serious bee viruses.

The most damaging species of Varroa Mite is Varroa destructor, which has caused devastating losses of European honeybees world-wide. Previously Australia was the only beekeeping continent in the world that was free of Varroa destructor, but unfortunately, this is the Varroa Mite species which was discovered in Newcastle in June 2022.

Drastic steps are currently being taken by Biosecurity NSW to try to eradicate this infestation. Strict controls have been placed on all European honeybee hives in NSW (see 2. below) and, so far, over 2400 European honeybee hives have been euthanised in the red zones shown in the map above.

For full details read BOTH the DPI Varroa Mite Emergency Response page;
and the DPI Varroa Frequently Asked Questions page.

2. What you need to know if you keep European honeybees

Biosecurity NSW has imposed strict controls on everyone who keeps European honeybees in NSW – even if you are a backyard hobbyist with only one hive.

-- Everyone who has European honeybees in the red, purple or yellow Biosecurity Zones in the map, above, must report the location of their bees, preferably online. This includes queen honeybees in cages and packaged honeybees.

-- For advice about whether you can move your hive, take steps to control swarming, or harvest honey, in your location, please read BOTH the DPI Varroa Mite Emergency Response page and the DPI Varroa Frequently Asked Questions page.

-- If you have acquired European queen bees, nucleus hives or hives containing honeybees from within the 50 km yellow zones within the past 12 months, you need to report this to the NSW DPI.

3. How will the Varroa Mite affect native bees?

Fortunately, research has shown that the Varroa Mite cannot attack Australian native bees directly, as native bees have a very different biology from European honeybees.

Other flow-on effects are still possible though. Infested hives of European honeybees carry high levels of bee viruses and some of these might spill over to native bees. Read more.

The Varroa Mite, if it spreads, will drastically reduce the number of feral European honeybee nests in the bush. This will reduce competition for nectar and pollen resources in the bush, which should benefit some native bee populations.

On the other hand, the efforts by Biosecurity NSW to eradicate the Varroa Mite will involve the use of a highly toxic pesticide. Strict protocols have been planned for its use. Nevertheless, it could still impact some native bees. IMPORTANT: there are steps that you can take to protect your native stingless bees, if you are in one of the red Eradication Zones shown on the map, below.

4. How will the eradication plans affect native bees?

In an attempt to rid Australia of this devastating European honeybee parasite, Biosecurity NSW, under current plans, will try to destroy all feral European honeybee colonies that are nesting in tree cavities in the red Eradication Zones.

The red areas are 10km Eradication Zones around infested sites. Click this link to view the DPI's large scale interactive map where you can zoom in to check precise locations.

In coming weeks, Biosecurity NSW will set out honey baits poisoned with the pesticide, Fipronil, in the red Eradication Zones. Feral European honeybee foragers will visit these baits and take the Fipronil back to their nests, killing the colony. Plans are underway to make this as safe as possible for non-target species including native bees. NSW DPI says that the poisoned baits will be closely monitored by an officer the entire time.

Nevertheless, this eradication effort still poses substantial risks to native bees that are in, or near to, the red Eradication Zones. Fipronil is highly toxic to bees. There are steps you can take, however, to protect your native stingless bees (See 5. below).

5. Do you have native bees in the DPI red zones? HERE IS HOW TO SAVE THEM.

In coming weeks (under current DPI plans), native bees in the red Eradication Zones (see map above) could be exposed to a highly toxic pesticide during the Varroa Mite eradication work by Biosecurity NSW. Here is how to protect the native stingless bee species:

-- DPI has confirmed that you can legally move your Australian native bees, even if they are in the red, purple or yellow zones. They state, "Native bees and native beehives are not covered under the Biosecurity Act and therefore can be moved legally in NSW." See 'Native bees' section in: https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/....

-- The safest action to take would be to move your hive of native stingless bees completely out of the red Eradication Zone and adjacent areas. You need to move the hive at least three km to prevent the foragers from trying to return to their previous location.

-- If you need assistance with moving your native stingless bees or you do not have a safe location to take the hive to, please read the following offer of assistance by Dan Smailes of Sydney Native Bees. https://www.facebook.com/dan.smailes...

+ Offering URGENT HELP for Native Bee Hives +
Do you live in the Eradication Zones that will soon be using bait poison (Fipronil) & have T. carbonaria hives?
• Do you NEED a safe & trusted place for temporary relocation throughout the poisoning period?
• Do you know of ANY natural habitats of NATIVE Stingless Bee colonies within these Eradication Zones & want to do something to HELP these important nests survive?
Please contact me ASAP so I can organise what’s needed.
Dan Smailes - msg me on - 0404604569
We have many people & safe places available, North & South, to foster HIVES in NEED.
• Native Stingless Bees ONLY •

This will be a collaborative effort through experienced local individuals. I will also be be seeking logistical help organising this rapid response through the relevant geographical branches of Australian Native Bee Association, and the National organising committee.

Note: it is currently illegal to move any colony of European honeybees in NSW, with one exception.

-- Another option is to close up all entrances to your hive of native stingless bees while the eradication work is underway. It is currently mid winter. Native stingless bees often naturally hibernate in NSW for many weeks in cold weather. They have sufficient stores of food inside their hives to support the colony. You could close up the main entrance and any ventilation holes by covering them with a NON-AIRTIGHT fine metal gauze or layer of gauzy fabric.

-- Do you know of a nest of native stingless bees in a tree that is in, or near, the red Eradication Zones? You could protect it too, by closing up the nest entrance, as described above, while eradication work is underway. Again Dan Smailes is offering assistance with this process. If you need help, see details in the yellow box above.

6. How native bees could help save Australian agriculture.

This crisis highlights the vital importance of developing native bees as alternative pollinators for Australian agricultural crops. If this Varroa Mite incursion cannot be eradicated, massive losses of European honeybees will occur throughout Australia. Then the pollination services of native bees and other insects will become crucial to support Australian agriculture.

Recent research in Australia has demonstrated that native bees, including our stingless bees and blue banded bees, can be effective pollinators of many Australian agricultural crops. Other Australian native insects, including flies, beetles, butterflies and wasps, also contribute important pollination services to crops.

New crop management systems, which help Australian native bees and other insects to perform their vital pollination services for our Australian agriculture, must be developed as a matter of great urgency!

Learn more...

native bees as alternative pollinators for greenhouse tomatoes

Blue Banded Bees: Alternative Pollinators for Crops

Explore Australian native bees...

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