Hundreds of Hawkesbury beekeepers are among the thousands across NSW ordered to put their honey hives into a virtual lockdown situation after the devastating varroa mite was found in hives near Newcastle Port.
“We’re hoping this is just an interim thing. It’s rather like a COVID lockdown, but for bees,” says Sue Carney who is Vice President of Amateur Beekeepers Australia.
Until this week Australia was the only major beekeeping nation without varroa, which when it takes holds leads to hives and their bees having to be destroyed to eradicate the bug.
No bee hives in the Hawkesbury have been found to have varroa at this stage.
In Europe and the US, they can’t totally eradicate varroa – they live with it, making beekeeping a much more difficult business.
The mite attacks and feeds on European honey bees – it doesn’t attack native bees – and can only reproduce in a honey bee colony, where it attaches to the body of the bee and weakens it by sucking fat body tissue, ultimately causing the bee colony to collapse.
The Department of Primary Industries order put in place on Sunday sees all hives within 10km of the port being destroyed and all other hives across the state locked down – the bees and hives cannot be moved anywhere until the order is lifted. The order has since been updated twice and there are now have several confirmed locations, but none in Hawkesbury.
NSW is home to 44% of the nation’s beehives, and the Hawkesbury region has hundreds of hives.
The Hawkesbury plays a major part, with hundreds of beekeepers across our local government area, and many crops which rely on bee pollination, notably apples, commercial flowers, and other fruit.
Bees not only produce fresh honey, they are also used on a large scale to pollinate crops – typically with hives being moved around the state – and if that doesn’t happen it could even lead to crop failures.
One in three mouthfuls of food that we eat has had pollination by honeybees in some shape or form. “Although the Hawkesbury is not in the immediate vicinity of areas of high concern at the moment, the state-wide order is affecting all beekeepers,” says Ms Carney who keeps bees at her property in the Blue Mountains.
“The situation is beekeepers are not allowed to touch their hives except to check for varroa and are not allowed to move them anywhere in the state.”
At the moment, for our local beekeepers, it’s a matter of waiting for information from the DPI and the people involved in the emergency response, and carrying out regular checks for the invasive varroa mite.
The DPI says, “You cannot tamper with your bees unless you are doing sugar shake, ethanol washes and brood uncapping to check for the presence of varroa mite. If you think you have found varroa mite, you must tell NSW DPI immediately.”
“It’s a bit of a lock down. We wait and see, and hold tight,” Ms Carney told the Post.
“Bees are critical in somewhere like the Hawkesbury where you’ve got apple orchards, and other agricultural enterprises relying on pollination by bees, particularly in the next few months,” she says.
“Almond pollination is going to be coming up in the next few weeks in Victoria and South Australia and that’s a huge event when something like 300,000 hives are moved to the pollination orchards.”
Kurrajong Heights beekeeper Mike Allerton – he has 15 hives and has been a beekeeper for six years – says one of the concerns revolves around unregistered beekeepers, those who the DPI don’t know about.
“The great concern I have is that some beekeepers – the unregistered ones – won’t admit they have got hives. I don’t like to blindly follow government direction myself, but in this case it is such a serious thing I’m hopeful all beekeepers in our region, even those unregistered, will let the DPI know about their beehives.”
He points out the DPI has said there will be no repercussions for unregistered beekeepers who step forward, such is the concern around stopping varroa.
Both Mr Allerton and Ms Carney say it is also important people keep an eye out for any feral bee colonies in the Hawkesbury – typically those bees that have escaped from hives – and simply register where they are in case the mite does spread to our region.
There is some good news – we’re in winter and bees are much less active now than in spring or summer, so there’s less movement by bees.
“We’re lucky we are in winter and bees are not as active as they are in spring and summer,” says Mr Allerton.
“If they can get on top of it in winter we could be lucky.”
He says it is crucial authorities and beekeepers – who have been shown how to check for varroa – get on top of the issue now, pointing to an outbreak of varroa in Townsville several years ago, which he says took two years to eradicate, though it was a variant which only attacked the Asian honey bee.
“Although it’s winter and typically that’s when beekeeping is fairly quiet we are rapidly going into that phase when bees are used big time, so it’s critically important,” says Ms Carney.
“You can’t touch your hives, you can’t open your hives, you can only do surveillance checks to confirm that varroa is not present, so you are allowed to do those checks and you’re not able to open the hives for any other purpose or to move your bees.”
Both Ms Carney and Mr Allerton stress that Hawkesbury honey which has already been extracted from hives can still be sold. The mite is never in the honey.
“Beekeepers can still sell honey, they just can’t take it out of a hive,” says Ms Carney.
“If they already have stores of honey and have bottled them that’s fine because there is no risk of the mite in honey, it is going to be with the bees. The issue is simply around any activities around hives and not disturbing them.
“We encourage people to support our local beekeepers.