THE AUSSIE BEE CRISIS: TRUTHS AND MYTHS

The honey bee industry in Australia is massive. Honey production is estimated to be worth around 100 million dollars to the Australian economy. Honey bees are also worth way more than their honey. They are vital for the pollination of horticultural and seed crops, which increases crop yield. This service is estimated to contribute four to six billion dollars value to the Australian agricultural industry.

With the honey bee playing such an important role in Australia’s agricultural industry, many people are worried about the threats that face the species. According to Dr Veenstra from Deakin University, “We could struggle to sustain the global human population” if the honey bee were to die out. So, what are the threats to the honey bee, and will civilisation really collapse without them?

AUSSIE BEES

Before we set off into heralding the bee-pocalypse, I think we should be clear as to what bees are threatened. Most people are familiar with the European Honey Bee, Apis mellifera. This is the bee that makes the (supposed) honey found in supermarkets and makes neat, little hives. Most of the threats, death and destruction people talk about refers to them. For example, Varroa destructor most greatly affects honey bees. But, if you hadn’t guessed it, European Honey Bees are not native to Australia.

There are actually over 1,600 species of native bees in Australia. They can be black and yellow or red, metallic green or even have polka dots. It is important to note that most native Australian bees are solitary bees. This means that they raise their young in burrows in the ground or in tiny hollows in timber, not in hives. Native bees are important pollinators as well. They have special relationships with Australia’s unique wildflowers, unlike honey bees. They are a vital part of Australia’s ecology, pollinating these flowers and increasing water infiltration in the soil by burrowing holes.

VARROA DESTRUCTOR

Varroa destructor and Varroa jacobsoni are species of mite that are the biggest threat to honey bees in Australia. These mites can feed and live on adult honey bees but really deal damage to the larvae and pupae of the bees. When feeding on the developing bees the mites cause “malformation and weakening of honey bees.” They also transmit numerous viruses amongst bees.

With malnourished bees, honey production decreases, the queen bee is superseded and eventually, the colony will break down and die. The Varroa mite has significantly affected honey production in Europe and the United States. Currently, Australia is the only large, honey producing country which doesn’t have the mite.

It is important to note that Varroa mites are only effective in hive colonies. As such, they only pose a major threat to the European Honey Bee, not solitary native bees. The loss of honey bees in Australia would be devastating, don’t get me wrong. However, many articles seem to ‘forget’ that they aren’t the only pollinators out there.

INSECTICIDES AND PESTICIDES

Along with the Varroa mite, agricultural practices threaten honey bee populations as well. This is due to the use of insecticides and pesticides, many of which poison bees. Poisonings often occur when toxic insecticides are applied to crops during their blooming period. Poisoning of pollinators can also result from the following:

  • Drift of pesticides onto adjoining crops or plants that are in bloom
  • Contamination of flowering ground cover plants when sprayed with pesticides
  • Pesticide residues, particles, or dust being picked up by foraging pollinators and taken back to the colony, and/or
  • Pollinators drinking or touching contaminated water sources or dew on recently treated plants

In Australia, the impact of insecticides and pesticides is often overlooked in favour of stopping Varroa. The mite does pose a significant risk, but farmers must restrict the use of pesticides to improve their yields – a concept that appears backwards but will protect honey bees and increase pollination.

LOSS OF BIODIVERSITY

A depressing but important factor in determining the threat to the honey bee is the global trend in declining biodiversity. Australia is currently the second-worst country in the world for biodiversity loss. The major causes of this loss are the following:

  1. Habitat loss and degradation
  2. Climate change
  3. Excessive nutrient load and other forms of pollution
  4. Overexploitation and unsustainable land use
  5. Invasive alien species

Almost all the factors contributing to biodiversity loss are caused by humans. Instead of blaming a species of mite, policymakers should instead look towards our society. It is way more difficult to solve, but if this fundamental issue is not addressed, losing the European Honey Bee is the least of our concern.

IMPACTS

All the factors outlined above are serious threats to the honey bee industry in Australia. Will it all lead to the collapse of civilisation as some articles suggest? Probably not.

With Varroa mite, if it gets to Australia, it will put a strain on the bee industry. However, Varroa mites have been prevalent in Europe for many years. The mites are just like any other pest or weed, they need to be managed and controlled. The same will happen if the mites breach Australian borders. Biosecurity will move from prevention to mitigation and management. This is the appropriate way we should approach the threats to bees.

Even in the unlikely event that all honey bees were to go extinct, Australia would go on. For one, solitary bee species and other pollinators will remain. Secondly, the only crops that will be affected will be ones that rely on pollination like canola and almonds. Grass crops like wheat, barley and rice will not be affected. Australia will not starve, riots will not break out, we will continue on. The threats to honey bees need to stop being sensationalised. We need to approach these serious threats reasonably. We need effective policy and rational decisions.