Bee-ware of the varroa

It’s now one month since attempts to eradicate the varroa mite in New South Wales were abandoned, and WA beekeepers are concerned the NSW state government’s lack of effort means the mite will eventually make its way to Perth.

In June 2022 the mite was detected in several hives in NSW, however, there has been no confirmation of the parasite being found in WA.

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), the mite is “the most serious pest of honey bees worldwide”, and if left untreated “will kill any beehive it infects”.

Chief plant biosecurity officer Sonya Broughton said varroa could significantly reduce managed and wild European honey bee colonies in WA.

“This would result in higher costs for beekeepers to manage their hives and have an impact on farmers that rely on honey bees to pollinate their crops,” Dr Broughton said.

European honey bee on a flower in Dianne Birt’s garden. Photo: Layne Sargeant

A study on the effects of the varroa mite in New Zealand estimated varroa cost the country $340 million to $620 million.

The devastating impact varroa had in New Zealand is another reason why beekeepers in WA think the state and federal governments should be doing more to prevent such significant costs.

Local beekeeper and founder of Postcode Honey, John Faherty said the initial lack of action by government and industry bodies after the varroa mite was detected in Australia, has left him disappointed.

“I firmly believe that if action had been taken in NSW immediately, to prevent the movement of hives, the outbreak could have been contained.”

Mr Faherty’s business involves sourcing small batches of honey from postcodes within the Perth metropolitan area where the beehives are located.

He believes if the varroa mite enters WA, beekeeping will become a more time consuming and labour-intensive task, and there would be significantly more hive losses each season.

North Perth beekeeper Dianne Birt shares a similar attitude and believes that although it will be heartbreaking to see such a drastic number of honey bees lost to varroa, it is inevitable. 

Ms Birt has been keeping European honey bees in her backyard for almost a decade after swarms started entering her garden every couple of years.

 Beekeeper Dianne Birt next to her European honey beehive. Photo: Layne Sargeant

She said she can understand why the NSW government had to abandon attempts to eradicate the mite, but she is very concerned about what will happen next.

“In the United States, when they realised varroa was endemic, the government legislated that beekeepers had to use chemicals to treat varroa, which is filled with problems.”

She said although some of these chemicals are good to use in the beginning, the varroa can become resistant, meaning keepers must increase the strength of the chemicals, affecting the wax in the hive.

“I won’t be using chemicals if they legislate it in WA. I would have to get rid of my bees because I don’t believe it’s good to eat honey that has been exposed to chemicals,” she said.

However, although the introduction of varroa will cause European honey bee colonies in WA to decrease, experts such as wild bee ecologist Kit Prendergast believe it may offer relief for native bees. 

She said this is because the varroa mite only feeds on honeybees which includes feral honeybees.

“[Feral honey bee] populations have been harming native wildlife for decades, and it is only now that people are beginning to realise the risks feral honey bees pose,” she said.

Dr Prendergast assured that honey bees aren’t at risk of extinction in any region, suggesting the biggest threat if the varroa mite enters WA, will be economic.

For beekeepers, such as Mr Faherty and Ms Birt, the arrival of varroa in WA will increase the cost of keeping bees, and for the people of WA, this may mean the cost of our local honey will soon rise.