Bees have an important role to play in countries of the southern hemisphere. Take for instance the Pink Lady apple, probably one of the best-known Australian horticultural exports, which relies on the pollination of mainly honey bees to secure fruit set and quality. Honey aficionados may also think of mãnuka honey, produced by honey bees foraging on the mãnuka or tea tree, which grows naturally in New Zealand.
We would like to shed some light on the situation of bees in Australia and New Zealand, two countries that are very passionate about their bees. We highlight some of their activities contributing to bee health and initiatives targeted at better understanding the multiple factors influencing the health of bees, such as pests, diseases, the availability of forage and nutrition.
// Australia is one of the few countries in the world that is still free from the parasitic Varroa mite.
// In neighboring New Zealand, beehive numbers are skyrocketing despite the presence of the Varroa mite.
// Initiatives being carried out in these two countries aim at sustaining bee health in the areas of pests and diseases, foraging and nutrition.
Besides the managed and unmanaged (feral) European honey bees, Australia is home to some 2,000 different native bee species, including both social and solitary species. Australia has over 13,000 registered beekeepers operating around 448,000 hives. Pollination in Australia is provided by a range of sources, including managed and unmanaged European honey bees, native bee species, small mammals, flies and other insects. Unmanaged European honey bee colony density is high and was recently estimated at three to six colonies per km2.
Australia is one of the few countries in the world that is still free from the parasitic Varroa mite which is thought to be a major factor behind widespread honey bee colony losses in North America and Europe. However, there is a high chance that the diseasetransmitting Varroa destructor mite will also permeate Australian territory. It is present not only in the neighboring islands of New Zealand, but even closer, in Papua New Guinea. Australia’s very strict quarantine measures may be one reason why the entry of this mite has been avoided so far.
An adult bee showing symptoms of Deformed Wing Virus (right circle), which can be transmitted by Varroa, with a Varroa mite attached (left circle).
Professor James Cook from Western Sydney University (right) and Richard Dickmann, Head of Public and Government Affairs, Bayer Australia, inspect new climate controlled glasshouses in which environmental impacts on pollinators will be studied.
Experts do expect the parasitic mite to arrive sooner or later, and they are quite concerned about it. “While in Europe, the majority of honey bee colonies are managed, in Australia there is a much bigger population of feral honey bee colonies – that is unmanaged colonies in the wild. These unmanaged bee colonies will be massively hit by the Varroa mite, whereas managed honey bee colonies can be sustained better,” explains Professor James Cook from Western Sydney University. The Varroa mite is considered to have the potential to cause a major decrease in feral honey bee populations whose ‘invisible’ pollination services are important for Australia’s horticulture sector, that is, for vegetables, fruits and ornamentals.
The Varroa mite is considered to have the potential to cause a major decrease in feral honey bee populations whose invisible pollination services are important for Australia’s horticulture sector. Due to this, Bayer has supported Plant Health Australia’s Bee Biosecurity Video Series:
Just how seriously the Australians are taking this latent Varroa threat is demonstrated by an elaborate two-tier strategy. Jointly funded by the Australian government, Horticulture Innovation Australia (Hort Innovation), a nonprofit, grower-owned Research and Development (R&D) and marketing company, and the grains and honey bee industries, the “National Bee Pest Surveillance Program” is an early warning system. It detects new incursions of exotic bee pests and involves a range of surveillance methods conducted at likely entry points into Australia. Inside Australia, the “National Bee Biosecurity Program” is targeted at beekeepers to help them prepare for dealing with the potential Varroa mite incursion and how to safeguard their beehives. One of the projects is a series of 12 videos produced by Plant Health Australia (PHA), the coordinators of the government-industry partnership for plant and bee biosecurity in Australia, and Plant & Food Research New Zealand, with the support of a partnership of public and private sector sponsors, including Bayer. “If the Varroa mite establishes in Australia, many crop producers will find they need to use managed hives to pollinate crops for best quality and yield. This applies to many horticultural crops including almonds, cherries, strawberries, apples, pears, avocados, melons, some vegetables and more,” says Dr Jenny Shanks, Project Officer with PHA. “Beekeepers will need to change their beekeeping practices. For example, it will require them to visit hives more often to check for mites and to control them, which will put up the cost of pollination services.”
Almond pollination In Australia, the importance of almonds continues to grow. In 2015, this crop, which depends heavily on insect pollination, accounted for one third of Australian horticulture export sales.
Picture: Michael Holmes, Plant Health Australia
The short videos (2 to 5 minutes), specifically targeted at Australian beekeepers and horticultural crop growers, cover a broad range of topics including the honey bee biosecurity and surveillance programs. Additionally, a hypothetical Varroa incursion in the country and what it might mean for beekeepers and horticultural crop producers is included. Further topics are the life cycle of Varroa, hive inspections and ways in which the mite can be controlled if it enters and becomes established in Australia. The videos are available on YouTube and on the BeeAware website. “Beekeepers find it really helpful since many of them did not know much about the Varroa mite and the videos provide just enough information to get them to think: yes, I can do that next time,” Jenny is happy to see.
Richard Dickmann, Head of Public and Government Affairs Bayer Australia, adds, “We supported this initiative to ensure that the beekeepers are fully informed about the range of issues they are confronted with, as well as the best way of controlling the Varroa mite if it arrives. At the same time, maintaining healthy hives is critical to supporting pollination and economic return for growers.” PHA also developed the “Australian Honey Bee Industry Biosecurity Code of Practice”, in consultation with beekeepers and governments, as a framework for best-practice biosecurity measures. It is based on the principles of good beekeeping practices which beekeepers should adhere to in order to minimize the impact of pests and diseases on their bees and the bees of other beekeepers. This includes actions such as appropriate training of beekeepers, regular inspections for pests and diseases, having response plans in place for potential pest and disease situations and good record keeping. Some of the requirements of the Code go beyond state and territory legislations and while compliance with those sections is still voluntary at the moment, the aim is to make more practices mandatory for a larger group of beekeepers.
According to a 2012 report, insect pollination-dependent crops in Australia have been estimated to be worth over 4.3 billion AU $.
Source: Hafi et al., 2012
In Australia, pollination-dependent horticultural crops including many fruit and vegetable varieties and nut plants are increasingly important. To address current and potential future challenges for the horticulture industry, currently worth an estimated 9 billion AU $, Horticulture Innovation Australia (Hort Innovation) has recently invested 12 million AU $ in two major pollination research initiatives. The first initiative will cover five different focus areas around bees and other pollinators in Australia. One of these projects is dedicated to improving knowledge transfer to horticultural crop growers and increasing their active engagement to collect pollinator data. As a project partner, Bayer will bring in its expertise and experience from its Feed a Bee program, which aims to increase food for bees and other pollinators by planting more flowers and establishing additional forage acreage. By working and partnering with individuals and organizations across various sectors, Feed a Bee helps to provide pollinators with the diverse foraging habitat they need to thrive. A separate program being managed by Plant and Food Research, New Zealand, will strengthen and enable effective pollination for Australian horticulture industries.
In the context of the first initiative, Bayer Australia will help to connect with fruit growers to set up on-farm workshops and engage with them to collect pollinator data. “We want to educate growers about pollinators and the importance of pollination and involve them in the monitoring. We hope to motivate them to make their own contribution,” explains Professor James Cook from Western Sydney University, the project leader.
Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited (Hort Innovation) is a nonprofit, growerowned Research and Development (R&D) and marketing company for Australia’s 9 billion AU $ horticulture industry. Hort Innovation invests more than 100 million AU $ in R&D and marketing programs annually, with investment going into both applied research and long-term coordinated strategic research.
The company has recently developed a new strategic partnership model which looks at future-proofing the Australian horticulture industry by facilitating a range of longterm research projects in key areas. Sitting within this model is the Pollination Fund, supporting research that is dedicated to reducing the risks of insect pollinationdependent horticulture and to ensuring a sustainable future for Australian horticulture produce. Among the research groups and projects being funded by the Pollination Fund is the Pollination Plus consortium, comprising a range of partners including Western Sydney University, Plant & Food Research New Zealand, Bayer, Syngenta and Greening Australia. Each partner contributes different skill sets and operates in parallel to the All India Coordinated Research Program (AICRP) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research on Honey Bees.
The consortium has recently embarked upon the “Healthy bee populations for sustainable pollination in horticulture” project. This five-year project is worth 7 million AU $ and will focus on characterizing and securing alternative pollinators, increasing the availability of pollen and nectar on farmland, investigating the effects of climate change on pollinators, bee virus research and grower education, training and adoption. These areas were identified based on recommendations by Western Sydney University, a key research provider for the Australian horticultural industries and close partner of Hort Innovation. “We want to better understand the importance of native pollinators for pollination of key crops in Australia, learn more about what they feed on and know more about diseases of our bee species apart from the honey bee,” says Professor James Cook from the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University, the research leader of the project.
Hort Innovation Chief Executive John Lloyd says the company is driving results through its projects: “Pollinators are important and are facing some challenges,” he explains. “Bees pollinate a large percentage of Australian crops, so it is vital we dedicate more resources into their health. It is also crucial that we explore and strengthen alternative pollinators through areas such as self-pollinating varieties of plants, alternative insects or automatic or robotic aids. The aim is to safeguard the future of our horticulture products for years to come.”
The European honey bee (Apis mellifera), bumblebees (which were imported to the country) and solitary bee species, but no native social bees, can be found in New Zealand.
In New Zealand, the Varroa destructor mite was first discovered in April 2000. It is considered responsible for the virtual elimination of feral honey bees. After its introduction, registered hive numbers remained relatively steady at around 300,000 between 2000 and 2005. However, they have been increasing ever since, reaching 575,000 colonies in June 2015, an increase of 13.5 percent compared to the previous year or close to double pre-Varroa numbers. In June 2016, numbers were even up to a total of 684,000 colonies. The number of registered beekeeping enterprises has also seen continuous growth rates, reaching 5,550 in 2015, which is also more than pre-Varroa levels. The increase in managed honey bee populations is driven by strong market demand for mãnuka honey (honey exports increased from 7,150 tons in 2010 to 9,050 tons in 2015) and led by investment in beekeeping enterprises.
Highly prized and desirable:
The demand for mãnuka honey is contributing to an increase in the number of professional beekeepers in New Zealand.
Feral nest in tree
In New Zealand, the Varroa destructor mite was first discovered in April 2000. It is considered responsible for the virtual elimination of feral honey bees there.
Also, an increasing ability to manage Varroa (often with the help of various Varroacides) is accredited to contributing to rising hive numbers in the South Island.
“Current estimates see beehive populations already at 700,000 and expect them to exceed 1 million in the near future,” says Tonde Kaitano, Crop Science Regulatory Affairs Manager at Bayer New Zealand. Average beehive density per square kilometer of land area is also very high, much higher than in, for example, the United States.
While the apiculture industry is growing, not only in terms of honey production but also thanks to increasing honey prices, the industry also faces ongoing concerns over bee health. In 2010, Apiculture New Zealand (ApiNZ), the key body representing the beekeeping and honey products industry, launched the “Bee Aware Month” campaign, which over time has progressed to a week-long media awareness campaign devoted to making New Zealanders think about the honey bee and its important role for New Zealand’s economy and agricultural ecosystems.
* Registered beekeeping enterprises and hives under the National Pest Management Plan for American Foulbrood. Varroa was discovered in hives in New Zealand in 2000. Source: AsureQuality Limited.
Young pupils plant seeds of bee-friendly plants in their school garden.
In light of the increasing awareness regarding the challenges bees are facing, William Malpass, Communication Manager with Bayer in New Zealand, and his colleagues founded an internal “Bee Interest Group” (BIG). As he explains, “We are a small team with limited resources but we really wanted to do something to address the important topic of bee health.”
They started in 2013 with an initiative educating employees around bees and distributed flower seed packages to them. The initiative was well received, which gave impetus to take it to another level in 2016. In order to obtain a greater impact, it was crucial for BIG to find partners who could help provide essential elements to the project, such as seeds. “Each one in the team had their specific part in the project based on their role and network,” William Malpass says. The idea was pitched to ApiNZ and Enviroschools, an action-based education program where young people plan, design and implement sustainability projects and become change agents in their families and in their community. Both of the organizations were easy to win over for this project. “Enviroschools was an important partner because they have a network of regional coordinators to engage with the schools,” he explains. In total, 1,040 schools, ranging from early childhood centers to secondary schools, were supplied with packets of bee-friendly plant seed mixes that were sponsored by Yates, a seed company. Furthermore, a localized educational booklet created by the Bayer Bee Care Center was provided, containing information about honey bees and how planting seeds can help them.
September is the dedicated “Bee Aware Month,” during which many bee-related activities are taking place all across the country, including this project. “It all happened really quickly,” he continues, “and we couldn’t have done it without the help of our partners. This initiative showed us how collaboration between Bayer and different industry groups can work. It went really well the first time, so we would like to do it again, and hopefully secure even more flower seed packages for distribution.”
William Malpass, Communication Manager, Bayer New Zealand
The high level of commitment and scope of cooperation shown in these projects in Australia and New Zealand are inspiring. “These great initiatives in the area of bee research and education show that by working together we can contribute to safeguarding pollinator health and promoting sustainable agriculture. And this is what the Bayer Bee Care Program is all about,” says Coralie van Breukelen-Groeneveld, Global Head of Bayer Bee Care enthusiastically.
Information for beekeepers and growers about honey bee biosecurity and pollination of agricultural and horticultural crops:
National Bee Pest Surveillance Program
National Bee Biosecurity Program
Australian Honey Bee Industry Biosecurity
Code of Practice