What's this Varroa Mite thing all about?


With the recent arrival of Varroa Mite in NSW (which the government and industry are doing an exceptional job of containing as I write this), below are some answers to common questions we have been peppered with.

What is a Varroa Mite?

OK, think about a tick. I know, eww! Given that a tick bite can cause a reaction severe enough to make people allergic to meat or kill a dog, obviously these little things can be pretty serious. The Varroa Mite is like a tick for bees, but would be a tick the size of a fist on a human looking at the equivalent scale. In addition to the huge relative size, Varroa are vectors for at least five different serious bee diseases. Their scientific name of Varroa desctructor is very apt.

Image credit: DPIRD https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/bees/varroa-mite-and-bees

Why the fuss in Australia?

We are lucky to have the healthiest bees in the world here, partly due to our weather and amazing floral diversity, but in a very large part due to the lack of pests and diseases (particularly Varroa). And we are even luckier in WA, with even better weather, nectar producing flowers and less health issues than the rest of Australia. In WA, it is illegal to treat beehives with chemicals to control pests which gives us a unique position in the global market as a large honey producing region.

Should Varroa become entrenched in Australia, commercial beehives will be hit hard and numbers reduced, with feral hives decimated. OK, less honey. But the knock on effects on agriculture are immense. There has been increasing awareness of the need for beehives to pollinate crops such as almonds and avocadoes in recent years but many more crops rely on bees for pollination (~$10 billion of economic value in 2014-2015), and currently the feral honeybees provide this service for free. With no feral hives, demand for commercial pollination hives will increase. However, there will be less commerical hives due to Varroa so things will get tricky...

What's being done at the moment?

The NSW Department of Primary Industries has issued an emergency order, which prevents beekeepers from moving hives anywhere in the state (an important part of honey production and pollinatoin services), a 25 km buffer surveillance zone around confirmed Varroa locations and a 10 km eradication zone.

While this may seem extreme, when Varroa was detected in New Zealand in 2000 it was already too late to eradicate it. By 2004, Varroa was across the whole North Island. The South Island held out for longer but by 2015 the whole of NZ had Varroa. It is estimated in 2014 that the industy spend over $12 million on chemicals to treat Varroa. No more clean honey, decimated agriclutural production and no coming back from that.

What can I do to help?

Most importantly, if you are a beekeeper make sure you have registered your hives! Or if you know a beekeeper, ask them if they are registered? This costs less than than registering a dog in most councils and means if there is an incursion into WA, all beekeepers can be notified immediately.

Consider donating to the national honey industry body (Australian Honey Bee Industry Council) as while they are doing amazing work the organisation relies on voluntary contributions. The WA industry body does get some industry support but contributions are always appreciated!

Keep supporting the local industry by buying Australian honey (or WA honey if you're here).

Be aware of biosecurity requirements - no bees, honey or other bee products are allowed into WA without extensive treatment and processing.

Let us know in the comments if you want to know anything further! We will endeavour to keep this post updated as the situation develops.

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