Bees dead and gone in next to no time

WHEN he was 12, scientist Ben Oldroyd's mother would drive him around Sydney's north shore as he searched for bee swarms hanging in trees.

Back home he would introduce one of his queen bees to the swarm in a manufactured hive to sell to bee-keepers.

''It was quite a serious business as a child,'' he said.

More than 30 years later, Professor Oldroyd, a behavioural geneticist at the University of Sydney, still keeps bees, although mainly for research purposes.

Last week he released a study suggesting Australia's main species of honey bee - apis mellifera, which produces 30,000 tonnes of honey a year and pollinates hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops, fruit trees and nuts - had almost no resistance to the varroa mite, a pest that has invaded bee populations on every continent except Australia.

Most experts agree it is only a matter of time before the mite, a cunning pest that drinks the blood of developing bees and makes them weak and susceptible to viruses, invades Australia.

To test whether Australian bees have any resistance to the mite, Professor Oldroyd transferred 250 queen bees from the country's most successful bee lines to a US government research centre in Kansas.

There, the researchers introduced varroa mites into groups of hives containing Australian bees, American-Italian bees, known to be susceptible to the mite, and Russian bees, known for their resistance to the mite.

Four months later, almost half the Australian honey bee lines had died compared with the 4 per cent mortality rate for the most resistant Russian honey bee, which isn't found in Australia, over the same period.

''The number of bees goes down so much that the colony is no longer viable,'' Professor Oldroyd said.

Varroa can be transferred between worker bees, on flowers and by bee-keepers.

''This research provides a clearer picture on the potential impacts of a varroa incursion in Australia,'' Professor Oldroyd said. The research project was funded by the Australian Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Australia's main species of honey bee, the European bee, was introduced in 1822. The feral variety of the species, which local farmers and households rely on heavily to pollinate their crops and vegetables, will suffer the most from a varroa attack, Professor Oldroyd said. In most infected countries, feral bees have been completely wiped out.

''It is largely accepted that varroa will eventually reach Australia and the findings from our research give us an indication of just how severe an impact this pest will have.''

The story Bees dead and gone in next to no time first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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