As 600 beehives were destroyed in New South Wales, the industry remained confident the varroa mite incursion could be contained, even as the emergency zone expanded, because cases of the deadly parasite were linked.
But concerns remained around almond harvest as well as the threat of the mites having a virus of their own, compounding problems for the state’s bees after the mite was discovered last week at hives near the Port of Newcastle.
The NSW Minister for Agriculture, Dugald Saunders, announced that a new eradication zone had been set up at Bulahdelah on the mid-north coast.
“Critically, this case is directly linked to a previously identified property, which shows the prompt and efficient response by the Department of Primary Industries [DPI] is working well,” Saunders said.
The acting chief executive of the Australian Honeybee Industry Council, Danny Le Feuvre, said that the other seven infected premises discovered to date remain within the initial emergency biosecurity zone in Newcastle.
This means that all bees within 10 km of the Port of Newcastle and Bulahdelah will be euthanised.
Saunders said about 600 hives, including 120 at Trangie in central-west NSW, had been destroyed so far, each containing between 10,000 and 30,000 bees.
He said that number will grow as eradication orders continue over the next few days and apiarists will be involved in the process.
“It’s a really difficult conversation to have and we want to make sure people are comfortable how it happens,” Saunders said.
Ana Martin, who runs Amber Drop Honey on the mid-north coast, said she has about 40 hives in the eradication zone at Bulahdelah, which has left her feeling distressed.
Martin said it’s not just the economic loss but the sadness of having to euthanise the bees.
“Between the drought, fires, floods and now varroa there seems to be a bit of bad luck for beekeepers lately,” she said.
Around either eradication zone is a 25km surveillance zone, where officials are monitoring and inspecting honeybees, and a 50km biosecurity zone within which beekeepers must notify the DPI of the locations of their hives.
Le Feuvre said: “We’re still confident because it’s all linked. So we’re not seeing any natural spread.”
He said this means the industry can continue aiming for the NSW bee lockdown to last 10 to 14 days and lifting “towards the end of next week”.
Le Feuvre said this was good news for avoiding “almondgeddon” with bees necessary for the almond blossom event.
Every August, almond growers use 300,000 beehives to pollinate the national crop, which represents the largest movement of livestock in the country.
“We’re still working extremely hard towards making sure bees can go to almonds this year,” Le Feuvre said.
The chief executive of the Almond Board of Australia, Tim Jackson, said: “If we miss blossom, then it’s an economic disaster for almond growers and their communities.”
But he said “with every day, we’re growing a little bit more confident that they may be able to contain the varroa incursion to the Newcastle area”.
“We’re looking for some sort of permit system or zoning system where we have the standstill order lifted and then there’s some sort of permit system where people outside … the area identified where the incursion occurred, can then transport their bees with the right protocols in place to safely get their bees there and home again, to ensure that the pollination occurs,” Jackson said.
Adding to the concern of the situation is the possibility that the mites found in NSW have deformed wing virus.
Urgent tests are under way to determine if this is the case.
The CSIRO’s expert on honeybee pathogens, John Roberts, said the mite and the virus often come together – and when they do, they are a dangerous duo.
The mites feed on the blood of adult and larval bees and over time can weaken and kill colonies.
If the mites have deformed wing virus they can pass it to bees while enjoying their blood meals.
Infected bees end up with deformed wings, abdomens and other problems.
“If it’s just the feeding damage, and not the virus damage as well, it’s much lower impact than in combination, when they are acting together,” Roberts said.
The Elizabeth Macarthur Agricultural Institute is doing the testing with support from the CSIRO.