Australia is “the last man standing” in the fight against the varroa mite, which has decimated populations of honey bee worldwide.

Story By Kathy Mexted

CSIRO scientist Dr Denis Anderson recalls his entry into the bee business. “Well, I grew up out the back of Temora [NSW] on a farm,” he says. “I was a kid who loved walking in the bush and peeling bark off logs to see what was underneath. After school, I wandered about for a bit. I finally decided the only thing that really, really grabbed me was peeling bark off logs and looking at insects, so I studied science and did my PhD in bee viruses.” Denis is typically laconic when talking about himself, but as the topic changes to work, his eyes gain an intensity that renders the listener silent.
Denis has studied varroa mites for 23 years. He discovered and named them and now he’s after them. And while he’s been figuring out the mite, which is about the size of a pinhead, it has been reproducing and spreading worldwide, decimating European honey bees enroute. The race is now on to find a solution before the mite arrives in Australia.
A 2008 parliamentary inquiry into the future of the Australian honey bee and pollination industries concluded that funding of $50 million annually would still show a profit to agriculture if varroa mite could be conquered before it becomes established in Australia.
“As an animal, they [the honey bee] only tick one box, and that’s as a honey producer,” Denis says. “They fit more neatly under the plant heading.” Our exotic crops and pastures need the exotic honey bees to pollinate them. Honey and bee products represent $80 million per annum for Australia, but the bee’s value as a pollinator to Australian agriculture, wool, meat and dairy is estimated at between $4 billion and $6 billion.
Australia’s beekeepers range from backyard hobbyists with a hive or two to large commercial apiarists running from 800 up to 4000 hives. “Bees have always been taken for granted by farmers and are now facing their toughest ever challenge in their long association with man,” Denis says, examining a honeycomb. “I started by going back to the Asian mites and figuring them out; who was who, what spread where and how,” he says, explaining the research process.
“A few hundred thousand years ago, there was a common honey-bee ancestor, possibly from the Himalayan region,” Denis says. “Its descendants (the Asian European honey bees) are now endemic in different parts of the world. DNA reveals that the Asian honey bee came into contact with varroa mites very early in its migration through Asia.”
There were no problems until the 1940s when the European honey bee arrived in Asia, presumably with trans-Siberian traders coming across from Europe. A strain of the mite jumped onto the European bee, injecting viruses to which the bee had, and still has, no defence. The mite has now spent 60 years marching around the world, from Asia to Europe and North America, killing European honeybee populations enroute. In the 20 years since the mite reached the US, where good data has been compiled, wild bees have been wiped out and five million managed hives halved.

This story excerpt is from Issue #71

Outback Magazine: June/July 2010