Australian honey bees were already facing a suite of serious threats before the varroa mite arrived, but a University of New England researcher now fears for the future of the industry, and the cost of agricultural produce.
Apiarist and PhD student Carolyn Sonter is urging all beekeepers to "do the right thing" and register their hives with the Department of Primary Industries for the sake of the nation.
As the biosecurity officer for the New England Amateur Beekeeping Association, she is fielding lots of inquiries from beekeepers but is concerned that some may not disclose infestations of the deadly parasite.
"If you have a beehive, you absolutely have to register it and have it tested for varroa mite," Carolyn said.
"That's the only way we will control it; otherwise we put at risk the entire industry and food security. If you have varroa in your hive, the idea of euthanising your bees is completely devastating, but you would hate to be the one person that causes control measures to fail."
While she is following developments very closely, and remains hopeful that the outbreak will be contained, Carolyn is worried about the potential fall-out ecologically and economically.
She said it has highlighted our reliance on honey bees and their importance to food production.
"Agricultural produce is already expensive," she said. "The price of anything that needs to be insect pollinated - that's 30 per cent of the food we eat - will increase dramatically if the mite outbreak spreads.
"All the conversations we are now having demonstrate that bees are like any agricultural livestock - they need to be carefully managed."
The small, reddish varroa mite takes up residence in larval cells within the honey bee hive and feeds off the larvae and pupae.
It emerges with the adult bee and compromises its immune system over time, making the bee more vulnerable to disease and pesticides. The mite can also be a vector for viruses.
Since mites were detected in hives at Narrabri earlier this week, the number of infected premises in NSW has risen to 24. That's getting frightening close.
"Bees are my passion and if I were to lose my hives then I would be devastated," said Carolyn, who has 28 hives located around Armidale and Invergowrie, valued at about $700 each.
She has only just rebuilt their strength following years of drought and the effect of bushfire smoke.
Apiarists with hives within declared red zones will have their hives destroyed but Carolyn said compensation for lost equipment and bees will not cover the loss of future earnings and often generations of breeding.
"There is the long-term cost because we may not be allowed to keep bees for 2-3 years after an infestation," she said.
"Buying stock in again after that will be expensive, plus you've lost income from honey sales. It has flow-on effect for years.
"The varroa mite almost crippled the US beekeeping industry when they first got it and it remains a big problem there."
Globally the honey industry is worth US$6 billion, yet bees have been under growing threat in Australia from intensified land use, extreme weather events, pests and exposure to environmental contaminants.
Carolyn's research has focused on the impact of chemicals and agricultural practices like the use of bird and hail netting to protect high-value crops such as blueberries, raspberries and kiwifruit, all of which require bee pollination.
Her first study found that the chemical perflurooctane sulfonate (known as PFOS) -widely used in consumer products and industrial applications, including fire-retardant - adversely affects honey bee colonies and may transfer to the honey they produce.
Carolyn's second study concluded that crop protection is also tough on bees.
"All the commercial beekeepers I had spoken to said they didn't like putting their colonies under nets because the hive strength (size of the hive and amount of honey it produces) went down rapidly and the bees didn't seem to recover," she said.
"It cost them more in terms of the lost hive production than what they got paid.
"During field trials in blueberry farms on the Coffs Coast, I confirmed that brood production, pollen and honey storage, as well as hive weight, all declined, possibly due to a loss of foragers and reduced resources entering the hive.
"The netted environment seemed to disrupt bee navigation; some didn't return to the hive because they couldn't find their way home," she said.
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