‘Heartbreaking’: Beekeepers count their losses as mite threat spreads to Sydney

Anna Scobie peers out through the rain-splashed window of her Newcastle home and sees a thriving colony of bees quietly buzzing around her yard, foraging and producing enough honey to feed themselves and supply her beekeeping business.

But Scobie can’t harvest this honey. She can’t so much as touch the hive. In a few weeks, a team from NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) will come and bait the box with poison to kill off the hive, and then another team will collect and burn what remains.

Newcastle beekeeper Anna Scobie’s 90 hives will need to be destroyed as she falls within the 10km eradication zone.Credit:Edwina Pickles

These drastic measures are part of the desperate attempt to contain the spread of theVarroa destructor, commonly called the varroa mite, since it was detected at the Port of Newcastle a fortnight ago.

Australia’s strict biosecurity measures and its relative isolation have played a key part in ensuring the country has remained mite-free. While authorities have detected the mite at other ports across Australia previously, it has never broken out into the bee population.

Until last week. While it’s unclear how the mite made its way to Australian shores, it’s most likely a colony of feral honeybees with the mite attached themselves to a shipping container boat whilst it was docked at an overseas port.

The hives at Scobie’s home are mite-free, but other sites where she keeps bees have tested positive, and all 90 of her hives sit within the DPI’s eradication zone and will eventually be destroyed. It is a devastating blow for the artisan honey and bee education business which she co-founded almost a decade ago, motivated by a desire to do her bit for the honey bee after seeing how the varroa mite had impacted colonies around the world.

“We realised that Australia was the healthiest place on the planet for honeybees, and we fell more and more in love with them,” she says.

After the mite was discovered at the Port of Newcastle, authorities moved to establish a biosecurity zone which included an eradication zone of hives within 10 kilometres, while those within 25 and 50 km would undergo surveillance.

In the days since, the mite, which impacts European honeybees’ ability to fly and gather food, has been detected at numerous other properties across the Mid North Coast and Central Coast, extending the biosecurity zone as far as Sydney’s CBD. More than 600 hives have since been destroyed.

A spokesperson for DPI says infected hives are euthanised and burned 24 hours later, but notes “the honeybees are not burnt alive”.

For hives without the mite but still within the 10-kilometre radius, fipronil syrup, an insecticide lethal to bees, is used with the hope that feral swarms living in places like tree hollows and brick walls will also pick up the poison and take it to their hives.

“DPI are following the guidelines as set out by the permit approved by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. The permit has precautions in place to protect all native non-target wildlife and other fauna,” the spokesperson said.

Eradicating the varroa mite would be “the best that can happen” for beekeepers in Australia, but it would be bitter-sweet for Scobie and others beekeepers who have already had to deal with the blow of having their hives destroyed. They will also be prevented from keeping bees for three years or until the pest has been eradicated from the affected areas.

“For businesses like ours, we won’t even be allowed to rebuild until that timeframe is up. Personally, it’s a heartbreaking outcome. Logically, for the industry … that [eradication] would be amazing,” Scobie said.

If eradication is impossible, authorities will move to manage the pest here as they do in other parts of the world, which involves the use of chemicals and need to be constantly monitored.

“We will all just have to start to use the processes that the rest of the world has done. That may mean we are able to return to beekeeping in this area sooner because everyone else is also living with varroa mite. But if we can eradicate it, we need to try to do that as best we can,” Scobie said.

Native bee researcher at the University of Queensland Dr Tobias Smith says it was inevitable the mite would reach Australia, the key challenge is waiting to see if it will establish itself or if the outbreak can be contained.

If authorities are unable to control the mites’ spread, it may have flow-on effects on agricultural industries. European honeybees play a vital role in crop pollination, including almonds, apples and stonefruit. But with bees’ movement restricted by the states, crops are unlikely to be pollinated as easily.

But, he says, in the years to come there may be one silver lining to the introduction of mites on Australian shores.

“Varroa mites will reduce numbers of feral honey bee colonies in our landscapes and therefore may benefit both native bees and managed European honey bees through reduced competition for flowers,” Smith says.

Pilot-turned-beekeeper Andrew Wilson, who has beehives barely 300 metres from a newly declared eradication zone on the Central Coast, has urged the DPI to hold off on destroying hives until they know whether the outbreak can be contained.

Andrew Wilson inspects hives on the Swissotel Sydney rooftop in the CBD in December. Credit:Peter Rae

He says his bees are likely to journey into the eradication zone and pick up the lethal bait and also worries about the long-term effects of chemical residues in the abandoned hives.

“I’m in a situation where I may lose my business in this desperate attempt to control it, when it may already be out of totally out of the bag,” he says.

“If I lose my bees, I can recover. If they blight the earth where my bees are … then that’s a situation I may not be able to recover from.”

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