Protecting Victoria’s precious and valuable bees

Protecting Victoria’s precious and valuable bees

When a ship approached Australia’s shores last year, it carried a dangerous stowaway – a swarm of bees and the parasitic varroa mite (Varroa destructor), which had the potential to decimate the nation’s bee population and have a devastating impact on both commercial and native pollination services and plant health.

Varroa destructor (varroa mite) has gradually spread throughout other continents to the extent that only Australia remains as the last continent remaining where it has not established. If it had, the flow-on effects to plant health and to agriculture could have been enormous.

But varroa mite met its match at the Port of Melbourne, in the form of a network of people trained by Agriculture Victoria to respond to just this threat – the State Quarantine Response Team (SQRT).

An ambassador for bee health

Joe Riordan is a Senior Apiary Officer with Agriculture Victoria and his job is to work with Victoria’s private beekeepers to ensure the health of our bee population and in turn, pollination services.

“I’ve had bees for 30 years. I started keeping bees because as a trained horticulturalist I grew as many of my own vegetables as possible, and keeping bees was just an extra step to build on that,” Joe said.

“So many of our food types are dependent on honey bee population – it’s an integral part of our agriculture.

 Joe Riordan, Senior Apiary Officer with Agriculture Victoria, prepares to take a sample of bes for the sugar shake test

Joe Riordan, Senior Apiary Officer with Agriculture Victoria, prepares to take a sample of bes for the sugar shake test

“Beekeeping is a form of mindfulness for me. I get absorbed in each task – it’s a great calmer. No matter how rushed you’ve been, you’re forced to slow down and operate on the bees’ terms.”

When that ship docked at the Port of Melbourne, Joe stood ready to respond to the incoming threat of varroa mite alongside a team including government, community and industry.

A collaborative response

The captain of the ship had alerted authorities to 500 dead bees onboard, with initial testing finding no presence of varroa mite. However, following the inspection of a wooden crate with an estimated 4500 bees inside it, further testing revealed two suspected varroa mites.

“I thought to myself, it’s happened, Varroa destructor is actually here in Australia”, said Joe.

Immediately, a coordinated response between Agriculture Victorian and the Victorian apiary industry swung into action including the checking of sentinel bee hives and private bee hives to see if any bees with varroa mite had spread from the Port.

And much of the field work was provided by the SQRT – a group of private beekeepers that Agriculture Victoria had trained over many years to spot exotic bee parasites or diseases.

The SQRT carefully checked hives after being called upon by Agriculture Victoria, with over 150 people trained and stepping up to help, more than half of which were volunteers.

Multiple rounds of sentinel and private bee hive surveillance were conducted immediately and over the next few months, as well as pain-staking sweep-netting of vegetation in and around the Port to be absolutely sure no bees with varroa mite had escaped.

“Varroa mite is a serious threat to not only the bee population but also to agricultural production,” Joe said.

“Horticultural growers producing apples, almonds and blueberries depend on bees to pollinate their trees. Without pollination, there would be no produce.”

The detection of varroa mite at the Port of Melbourne occurred just two months before ‘almond pollination’, an annual event where around 150,000 bee hives from all over Victoria and interstate converge in Victoria’s north west to pollinate almond orchards, which are 100% reliant on bees for pollination.

Had varroa mite escaped the Port of Melbourne – the entire almond pollination event would have likely been at serious risk.

 The ropiness test can be used to detect foulbrood in a hive

The ropiness test can be used to detect foulbrood in a hive

Looking forward

Thankfully, the SQRT response showed that no bees with varroa mites had escaped the Port and the response demonstrated the value and need of a rapid response team.

“The beekeepers around the state are not going to stand back – what they want to do is help,” Joe said.

“We are prepared – we know that container movements from overseas is so prevalent today and only increasing and we need to have that network in case there is a varroa threat again.”

Joe, who keeps about 20 hives at his home, said the varroa mite detection has only strengthened his commitment to protecting Australia’s bee population and plant health from pests and diseases, and ensure the health and prosperity of our plants that are so dependent on bees and pollination.

“Everyone has a role to play in biosecurity. Protecting bees and creating a healthy bee population and plant health in Victoria and Australia is my job, my passion and something I’m very proud of.”

Author: Nicole Cairns, Agriculture Victoria