Saturday, June 16, 2007

Stowaway bees could spread deadly mite

Here we have another entry in the continuing story about the plight of honeybees in the world. This one even has a fountain pen connection (see the penultimate -- pun intended -- paragraph).

"Diseased honey bees could threaten billions of dollars worth of honey production and pollination if they breach Australia's border controls, beekeepers say.

The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council (AHBIC) expresses its concerns in a submission to a Federal Government inquiry on the industry.

One of the diseases Australian beekeepers are particularly concerned about is caused by the mite Varroa destructor, which has been killing bees in New Zealand.

"It's a terrible thing," AHBIC executive director Stephen Ware said.

"It just sucks everything out of the bee and then it goes and reproduces in the [honeycomb]."

While there are strict quarantine rules for bees entering the country officially, illegal imports and accidental arrivals can pose a threat.

Dr Iain East of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) says quarantine authorities have so far destroyed 20 swarms of bees that arrived unannounced on ships.

Dr East coordinates the National Sentinel Hive Program, which is designed to help catch unchecked bees from entering Australia.

He says this involves placing 38 hives at 22 ports and airports around Australia to attract stowaway bees and these colonies can then checked for pests.

Apiarists nervous

But apiarists are nervous about how well the system works.

"It's too ad hoc," Mr Ware said.

"It needs to be better managed."

He says there needs to be a reassessment of whether there are enough hives in the right places.

He is also concerned the hives are not being properly checked.

CSIRO entomologist Dr Denis Anderson says the current sentinel hive program is serviced by volunteer beekeepers and state governments.

He says DAFF has proposed the program be more "fully funded" with support from state and territory governments and run by Animal Health Australia.

"We hope to have it [the new program] operating by 1 July 2008," he said.

Mr Ware says the Varroa mite is deadly to the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) and is costly to control in managed hives.

Feral honey bees

He says it also kills feral honey bees, whose hives can't be treated for the mite, adding that the horticulture industry relies on these bees to pollinate $3.8 billion worth of crops.

Mr Ware says New Zealand horticulturalists are paying beekeepers to put their managed hives on their properties to replace feral pollinators.

"The cost of pollinating crops tripled overnight," he said.

Dr Anderson says Australia is the only continent free of the Varroa mite.

But he says it is particularly vulnerable because of the country's strong dependence on feral bees for pollination.

While the sentinel hive program looks for pests in stowaway bees, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) tries to catch bees that enter by other means.

When imported bees enter quarantine they are allowed to lay eggs and are then killed to be examined for pests and disease.

Some of their progeny are also killed and examined.

Quarantine privatisation

Mr Ware says the bee industry is concerned that Australia's dedicated bee quarantine facility at Eastern Creek in Sydney will suffer from being privatised.

But AQIS says there are no plans to privatise operations.

A spokesperson says while the facility at Eastern Creek was sold to a private operator some years ago, it is still leased to AQIS, which will continue to run the quarantine program.

New facilities will be built before the lease expires in 2015, the spokesperson says.

AQIS says bees are sometimes imported illegally by post or with air passengers.

In one case, sniffer dogs found a passenger with six queen bees hidden in a fountain pen.

In the US, more than a quarter of honey bee colonies collapsed due to a mysterious "colony collapse disorder" and it is now importing live bees from Australia."

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