Protecting our bee colonies from the world's worst bee disease

Protecting our bee colonies from the world's worst bee disease

The importance of bee colonies and the serious consequences if we were to lose them have become hot topics in recent years.  Bees as pollinators are critical to sustaining life on earth.  They pollinate 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world. Honey bees are responsible for $30 billion a year in crops.

Meet Associate Professor Andrew Barron, who is working to save vulnerable Australian honey bees from the world’s worst bee disease: the Varroa destructor mite. He leads a large bee research team at Macquarie University and thanks to funding from a generous donor*, is leading a research project into preparing Australia for this threat in advance of its arrival.

The worst honey bee disease is the parasitic mite Varroa destructor, which can devastate a hive within weeks. Every country on earth has this pest, except Australia.  However, there is genuine concern that it may have already arrived here but is presently undetected, and that Australia is unprepared for outbreak.

Andrew has been studying bee biology and behaviour for 20 years. With collaborators in the US Department of Agriculture, he is conducting large scale colony monitoring and modelling studies to better understand the mechanisms of colony growth and failure, and to identify colonies at risk as failure as well as better interventions to rescue them.  He is expert in understanding how stressors impacting on the physiology of individual bees can change the development and fate of the whole colony.

“My research is important because the problem with the decline in bee populations is serious”, he said.  “It's serious in terms of the immediate effects of pollination of food crops and in the bigger context of what it suggests we're doing to our environment. We simply can't keep having this impact without some serious consequences”

“In Australia, we have the unique ability to evaluate which miticides have the fewest side-effects on bees, and how best to deploy them in Australia’s unique environment.  This research cannot be done anywhere else - it hasn’t been possible to analyse the performance of miticide treated and untreated colonies, because the untreated colonies are killed off by Varroa.  We are testing impacts of miticide treatments on bees’ natural disease resistance, cognition and colony growth.  We are performing experiments in both NSW and Tasmania to test in different Australian environments.”

The research could not only help protect Australia’s $90 million honey industry, but Australia’s horticulture industries as well.  The value of the pollination service provided by honey bees to which has been estimated at $12.5 billion p.a.

In addition, the honey industry is an important rural industry and employer in regional Australia.  The incursion of the Varroa mite into New Zealand 17 years ago, drove 50 per cent of New Zealand bee keepers out of business, and that community has not yet recovered.

The research will contribute to the development of the first analyses of how different miticide treatments impact bees themselves. This will benefit bee populations domestically and globally by supporting the development of new guidelines to optimise the use of miticide treatments in bee hives.

This project will have a significant impact on the Australian, and global, bee industries in the fight to protect bee populations worldwide.

more information on Honey Bee Research

*This research project is funded by the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation through the Eldon & Anne Foote Trust

Content owner: Advancement Last updated: 22 Apr 2018 10:11am

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