From the Newsroom

Varroa mites on a bee. Image: Contributed

Clarence apiarists on alert as first time Varroa mite detected

Rodney Stevens


A tiny insect never before seen in Australia has Clarence Valley apiary businesses and owners lives on hold after Varroa mites that could decimate the industry were first detected in beehives at the Port of Newcastle last week.

A state-wide emergency biosecurity order has been issued by the Department of Primary Industries DPI to control the movement of bees and stop the spread of Varroa mite which, if detected, results in entire hives and businesses being destroyed, said two Clarence Valley beekeepers.

Since the first detection, Varroa mites, with the potential to devastate Australia’s agriculture and horticultural industry, which relies on honey bee pollination for more than 65 per-cent of crops, have been as far north as Taree, and south to Calga, on the NSW Central Coast.

Di McQueen-Richardson of HoneyBee Hives at Coutts Crossing with some of her produce. Image: Contributed

Coutts Crossing based HoneyBee Hives owner Di McQueen-Richardson and Yamba apiarist Mitch McLennan said the impact of Varroa mite on the industry and agriculture could be massive.

“The recent discovery of Varroa mites in NSW is a huge threat to the Australian beekeeping industry, and would be catastrophic if not contained,” Mrs McQueen Richardson said. 

“Honey production, pollination services, and the sale of bees are all affected, with potentially massive financial losses and a devastating emotional impact across the industry.

“Australia is the only major honey-producing country in the world currently without this destructive pest, which is generally treated with chemicals, and results in massive hive losses in other countries.

“If the mites are not contained and were to spread across the country, that would mean the end of our pure honey.

“Costs for beekeepers would soar, with required treatments and increased hive losses, resulting in higher prices for honey, bees, and pollination services, with a roll-on effect across many agriculture sectors. 

“This threat could also see many commercial operators either leaving the industry or going bust as a result.”

Mitch and Tammy McLennan of Yamba’s The Raw Bee Co. Image: Contributed

Mr McLennan owner of Yamba based The Raw Bee Co said with the distance between detections of Varroa mites, people are questioning whether the parasite has been in Australia longer than two weeks.

“The DPI are trying to eradicate Varroa mite and nowhere else in the world has been able to eradicate it,” he said.

“They’ve destroyed people’s entire businesses by burning their hives in the past week, one guy had 2000 hives burned and they could have just killed the bees and not burned all the equipment.

“To see something like that is quite terrifying.

“It’s meant to travel 6km to 8km a year, and the distance it’s travelled in the past week is quite alarming on the DPI website.”

On the back of bee losses in this year’s floods, Mrs McQueen-Richardson said, and an effective ‘immediate income freeze’ due to DPI orders, warranted government help.

“This heartbreaking situation has the potential to ruin many operators if unable to work with their hives, to extract honey, split to increase apiary numbers, or fulfill pollination services,” she said. 

“No income (for who knows how long) and yet the bills keep piling up, with wages and mortgages still need to be paid. 

“Compensation has been discussed by authorities for hives that must be destroyed, however loss of income needs to also be addressed for all commercial operators across the state as businesses are effectively on hold, with no clear idea of when that may change.”

Mr McLennan said only being able to tend to his hives to check for Varroa mite has him facing bee losses and put a stop to his routine, right before what he hoped was going to be a bumper season.

“Not being able to work with our hives is killing a lot of beekeepers in NSW I have been speaking to online, from people with a couple of hundred hives to bigger operations with thousands,” he said.

“In spring we open the bottom of the boxes and put new frames in so the bees can make more brood by laying eggs to create young, and more honey, expanding the hive through spring and summer.

“If they can’t expand the hive and give it that extra room then they leave, because they want the hive to keep expanding.”             

NSW Department of Primary Industries DPI honeybee technical specialist Doug Somerville said Varroa mites only pose a danger to European honey bees and do not affect native bees.

The vast majority of Australian honey produced by apiarists is from European honeybees.

“Individual mites are easily identifiable to the naked eye, they look like small brown sesame seeds with eight legs. 

“They are flat and about 1.1 mm long and 1.7 mm across.”

NSW Agriculture Minister Dugald Saunders said swift measures are being taken to contain the disease, which is the most serious pest for honey bees worldwide.

“We have immediately launched an eradication plan which involved setting up a biosecurity zone, containing the infected hives and euthanising the bees,” he said.

“Australia is the only major honey producing country free from Varroa mite and if it has the chance to establish here, it could cost the honey industry more than $70 million a year.”