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Keeping killer bees out while developing a species resistant to the dreaded varroa mite

July 2, 2015
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It is “inevitable” that the varroa mite will make its way to Australia.

That is the view of Sydney University’s Dr Nadine Chapman, who is looking to introduce varroa-resistant bees, located in parts of the United States of America, to Australia.

The mites attach themselves to bees, sucking their blood, causing diseases and viruses deadly to the insect.

So far there have been only some isolated cases of varroa mites finding their way to Australian shores through infestations on shipping containers.

Authorities managed to destroy those before they took hold.

Dr Chapman has been in the US looking at the various ways different species of bees tackle the mite feared by every Australian apiarist.

“One way is to interrupt the brood cycle of varroa; so you can have bees that mature quickly, which means the varroa cannot complete it’s brood cycle,” she said.

“Or you can have bees that can detect varroa in a brood cell and they’ll open the cell up and remove the bee larvae.

“Another way is for the bees to become more aggressive toward varroa, so they can chew off the legs which essentially will kill the varroa mite.”

One of those species is the “Africanised” bee, an introduced cross breed found in the US, that have been shown to be impervious to the varroa mite.

However they have two significant drawbacks from a bee keeper’s perspective.

They are not great producers of honey, and their aggressiveness has also led them being known as “killer bees”.

They attack in large numbers which would make it difficult for people such as orchardists to have them pollinating their trees.

Fruit growers would find it hard to maintain their trees while constantly under the threat of being stung.

Dr Chapman said her US colleagues experienced just how serious a problem Africanised bees can be recently at a fuel station.

A vehicle loaded with Africanised bee hives stopped to refuel, the bees proceeded to attack a number of other people at the fuel station, forcing the researchers to jump back into the truck and drive several hundred metres down the road.

They had to return on foot to pay for their fuel.

If another species of bee mates with an Africanised bee, the offspring will take on the traits of the “killer bees”.

Presently it is a long process to ensure that the bees being introduced are not in anyway Africanised.

This includes quarantine, and then testing to ensure the offspring are not carrying the genes of the killer bees.

At the moment no bees can be imported from the U.S.

“What we would like is for bee keepers to be allowed to import bees from the U.S,” said Dr Chapman.

“This is as long as they perform a genetic test.

“Currently you are not allowed to bring in sperm from anywhere, you are allowed to bring in Queen Bees from selected countries.

“That is being looked at so we can bring in sperm. That sperm would also have to be tested.”

Dr Chapman was briefly in Canberra talking to fellow researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The value of honey produced in Australia is between $90-100 million, while the value of crops which benefit from pollination by honey bees is valued at between $4-6 billion.

Published by The ABC, 22/06/2015