Bees are an essential part of the environment. They are involved in the pollination of the many species that require it. In fact, bees are the most efficient pollinators and many plants cannot reproduce without their help.
Because these flying little workers are so crucial to the environment, their declining numbers are a cause for serious concern. The reasons for that vary from human activity destroying their habitats to climate change causing plants to bloom earlier or later than they should, providing an additional challenge to bees to find food. But most recently in Australia, there has been another silent bee killer and its name is varroa.
What is a varroa mite?
Varroa mites are closely associated bee parasites that feed on their bodily fluids and younglings. Like a horrific bee vampire, they feast on bee blood, but unlike the traditional Bram Stokeresque villain, they transmit a whole host of diseases, many of which deadly to our winged little friends.
The varroa mite is not particularly deadly in and of itself, but in combination with different diseases it carries, it has been responsible for the collapse of many hives and the death of many bees. It has single-handedly put thousands of beekeepers out of business and caused many hobbyist apiarists to switch their area of interest. What is more alarming is its prevalence all over the world, except Norway and Australia… until now.
How the potential varroa mite epidemic occurred in Australia?
The varroa mites have been transported by a ship from the United States. At this point, we’re not looking at a full-blown epidemic as authorities claim to be “confident” the situation has been contained.
The fact that it comes from the United States is particularly alarming as there is a huge prevalence of the deadly varroa destructor. Why is it so dangerous? Because it affects European honeybees, which is a huge problem because a large portion of the entire industry is based on them.
How widespread is varroa mite in Australia today?
So far, no reports have been found for varroa mite detection outside the ship. The colonies on the ship where the mite was detected have been destroyed. It’s also very likely the bees couldn’t have carried it far due to cold weather, which makes them more lethargic.
Despite all of this, the potential epidemic is a cause for great concern. In New Zealand, an epidemic of apocalyptic proportions destroyed almost the entire industry. The native bee populations dropped to an alarming 10%. A potential epidemic can mean a lot for Australia and apiarists are rightfully concerned.
How is Australia preparing for the varroa mite?
There is already a coastal line of defence prepared for just such occasions. The so-called “sentinel bee hives” are there to warn of us of early signs of an epidemic. The problem with varroa mite is that it’s usually difficult to detect unless you’re specifically looking for it, which luckily we are.
The sentinel hives are no ordinary lives. They’re equipped with an internal defence system – a pesticide that kills the mites. Underneath, there’s a layer of sticky paper so the dead mites (should there be any) can easily be identified, accounted for, and investigated.
The coming of the varroa mite in Australia is inevitable, but we do have one of the (if not the) best biosecurity program in the world for just such occasions. For now, the situations seem to be under control. Let us hope it stays that way.
Does varroa mite affect honey?
The varroa mite has no direct effect on honey. However, colonies infested with the mite produce less honey.
How bees react to the varroa mite?
Survival of the fittest is already kicking and evolution is taking its course. It stands to reason that the genes of the varroa mite resistant bees would be favoured, so honey bees are already starting to evolve and developing a resistance. We’re not yet sure how this is happening, but it’s a good thing that it is.
It’s also a bad thing because at this point we haven’t found a way to consistently solve this problem and bees are starting to sort it out on their own. But the process is slow. And because we haven’t had the varroa mite so far, Australia will be hit very should an epidemic develops. Our honey bees have no resistance whatsoever. The initial losses will be devastating.
Does varroa mite affect wasps?
Generally, the varroa mite doesn’t affect wasps. However, there have been instances where subsets of the mite have been found infesting wasp nests, but there isn’t enough data to claim varroa mites can infest wasps for sure or that they do it on a consistent basis. Despite both being Hymenoptera, there is a host of differences between bees and wasps, so this question requires more investigation. For now, the varroa mite is associated closely with bees alone.