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Honey bee surveillance plays vital role in grains industry

Safeguarding honey bees from pests such as Varroa mite offers the best chance of maintaining the supply of healthy pollinators for plant industries.
Photo: Plant Health Australia

Bee crop pollination plays a vital role in Australian agriculture and horticulture. Food production and livelihoods are dependent on honey bees, with about two-thirds of all horticultural and agricultural crops in Australia reliant on pollination.

Grain crops vary in the way they are pollinated. Crops such as wheat, oats and barley are self-pollinated, while rye and maize cross-pollinate with pollen being transferred by the wind. Grain crops such as canola, sunflower and faba beans, however, are known to benefit from bee pollination, producing higher yields and quality.

The National Bee Pest Surveillance Program (NBPSP) is an early warning system that uses a range of surveillance methods at seaports and airports throughout Australia, as these are the most likely entry points for honey bee pests and pest bees. Surveillance at additional ports is also provided through in-kind contributions by state and territory governments.

“The program ensures Australia has an early warning system in place to protect our valuable honey bee health status,” says Dr Lucy Tran-Nguyen, Plant Health Australia’s (PHA) general manager of partnerships and innovation.

The NBPSP continues to conduct surveillance for new incursions of Varroa mite in addition to eight other exotic bee pests and pest bees. This is crucial in keeping Australia free from viruses such as deformed wing virus, which could enter with new introductions of Varroa destructor mite.

“Safeguarding honey bees from high-impact pests such as Varroa mite continues to give us the best chance of maintaining the supply of healthy pollinators for plant industries,” Dr Tran-Nguyen says.

Various surveillance tactics employed in the program include monitoring live (sentinel) hives for pests and diseases, catch boxes to capture swarms, rainbow bee-eater pellet analysis, aerial pheromone ballooning to pick up new species of bees and using nets to sweep flowering plants to capture any foraging bees near ports.

Targeted surveillance activities

Rainbow bee-eater pellet collection and pheromone ballooning are two surveillance activities that have been added at suitable locations. Both of these activities target Asian honey bees and are used at northern locations, which are the highest risk for this pest.

“These techniques are fit for purpose and consider learnings from past experiences to improve the efficiency and delivery of surveillance at each of the port locations,” says Dr Jenny Shanks, PHA’s manager of bee biosecurity.

Coordinated by PHA for more than 10 years, the NBPSP performed a total of 30,539 surveillance activities targeting exotic bee pests and exotic bees, which include:

  • 8084 sticky mat inspections for external bee mites;
  • 5658 additional surveillance activities such as sugar shake, alcohol wash or drone capping;
  • 4975 frame inspections for large African hive beetle, Braula fly and small hive beetle;
  • 1655 sample collections;
  • 2469 small hive beetle traps deployed in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania;
  • 1155 samples of bees collected from hives and tested for exotic viruses;
  • 5350 catch box inspections undertaken for the presence of European honey bees or Asian honey bees;
  • 86 swarm captures including those found in catch boxes;
  • 1036 floral sweep netting events targeting foraging bees;
  • 57 pellet diagnostics; and
  • 14 aerial ballooning events.

Bee pest surveillance in Australia has been underway for more than two decades, with the first sentinel hive inspections occurring in the late 1990s. Today, PHA collaborates with the grains industry to manage biosecurity risks and pollination needs.

The latest three-year iteration of the NBPSP commenced in December 2021 and ends in December 2024. The program will continue to focus on a consistent national approach for the early detection of target bee pests and diseases.

Grain growers are urged to report any unusual plant or bee pests and diseases through the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline (1800 084 881). Early reporting increases the chance of effective control and eradication.

“Reporting unusual symptoms or unexplained colony deaths, by working closely with beekeepers pollinating your crops, will also assist in building knowledge and may provide vital clues needed to identify a new pest and stop it spreading to surrounding bee populations,” Dr Shanks says.

The NBPSP is funded by Hort Innovation using research and development levies of 14 horticultural industries, with significant co-investment from states and territories and contributions from the Australian Honey Bee Levy, GPA and the Australian Government. The NBPSP is coordinated by PHA and delivered by all states and the Northern Territory government.

More information: Plant Health Australia; Pollination of crops in Australia and New Zealand

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