Biosecurity and the beekeeper

Wednesday, Mar 2, 2016, 12:24 AM | Source: Pursuit

By Jean-Pierre Scheerlinck

Biosecurity and the beekeeper

One third of all the food we eat is pollinated by bees. Many of the fruits, vegetables and tree nuts (such as almonds) we consume rely on the interaction of blossom and bee.

Bees are incredibly important in terms of food security, but around the globe they are under threat from disease, namely a lethal form of mite infestation that is responsible for the collapse of entire bee colonies. These mites not only affect the bees directly but also spread viruses between colonies. We've seen this mostly in Europe, and in the USA where common practices are suboptimal from a biosecurity point of view.

Diseases can spread as a result of poor bee management practices. Bees are also displaced by mono-cultures, in which vast areas of the same plant species might flower for three weeks of the year, but after that, are a completely inhospitable habitat for bees. Together with the spread of diseases, industrialisation, overuse of pesticides and the lack of proper regulation are also contributing factors to declining bee populations.

Professor Jean-Pierre Scheerlinkck with a rooftop hive at the University of Melbourne. Picture: Theodor Bujor.

Bio-security experts believe it's a matter of when, not if, infection by Varroa mites hits Australian bee populations, even though Australia is currently quite successfully controlling the regular incursions coming from overseas. Environmental regulators and biosecurity officers work with more than 250 volunteers and amateur beekeepers on monitoring programs, but infection is still expected, and will probably come through the shipping industry.

Sentinel hives at our ports are closely watched, but detection of insects is a pretty difficult task. These efforts may just keep Australia free for a little bit longer from this devastating parasite which is affecting every other honey producing country.

Beekeeping is going through a huge renaissance at the moment, with numbers of enthusiasts attending apian events having doubled in recent years. There are more than 20 beekeeping clubs in Victoria and more than 4000 registered amateur keepers. There's a noticeable shift in the demographic among beekeepers as well: apiarists used to be overwhelmingly male, often retirees who were keen on bees, and who wanted to earn some extra cash selling honey. When I attend apiarist events now, it's much more mixed, with lots more young people and women participating.

Urban beekeeping is even being described as a discrete subculture. There are beehives on hundreds of city high-rise roofs around the world, including at the University of Melbourne. Cities are actually great places for bee colonies to be established, as there is usually a lot less pesticide present in the environment than in rural areas.

Almond production relies 100 per cent on pollination from honey bees. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

In addition, the year-round availability of a diversity of flowering plants results in happy bees. The honey industry is really very low value though, relative to the real food production work that bees do through crop pollination.

I'm drawn to beekeeping for several reasons, including as an agricultural pursuit to generate home-grown honey. But really I enjoy the intellectual challenge that comes from the complex process of managing bees, and the space it offers me for thinking more deeply about biosecurity. Keeping bees requires very specialised colony management, and thoroughly understanding the behaviour and genetics of bee colonies. You also need to know something about pests and disease. The fun and challenge of beekeeping as a hobby is maintaining balance in the amount of honey, and the number of worker and drone bees all helping the queen manage the reproductive cycle. Building different types of hives requires woodworking and design skills.

Bees are fussy and have really specific living requirements if you want them to form hives. The ideal space between structures in the hive for bees to feel happy in is slightly less than one centimetre.

The discovery of the "bee space" in the 19th century has allowed the development of the modern hive

Modern box hives have frames that allow keepers to collect the honey without destroying the hive by removing the bees' food source. In addition, the frames allow for easy inspection for diseases and bee wellbeing.

Bee mugshot. Photo: Flickr

Bees have unfairly been given a bad rap. The facts are, they are not aggressive at all when they move away from their hives, and rarely sting, as that involves loss of life for them. They'll usually only sting to protect their home and their honey. The people who are most often stung are beekeepers themselves! Most stings received by Australians are actually European wasp stings. And only between one and five per cent of populations are really allergic to bee stings, with less than one Australian fatality each year from bee allergy.

The complexity involved in beekeeping offers a learning opportunity and great introduction to biosecurity for students, as it emphasises the need for proper handling and regulation at international, national, and colony level. Students are able to see how it all fits together. And, quite simply, bees are just fascinating creatures!

Email bee-keepers@unimelb.edu.au to learn more about beekeeping on campus at the University of Melbourne.

Banner image: Getty Images

As told to Katherine Smith