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A California Beekeeper Returns Down Under

A California Beekeeper Returns Down Under

Randy Oliver


First Published in ABJ in October 2009

I’ve never had the means to travel to faraway places. Recently, however, I find myself in the fortuitous situation of having beekeepers actually pay my way to speak at conferences, so I am taking advantage of what is likely my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit exotic lands and meet the locals. In June I had the pleasure of revisiting Australia—land of kangaroos, Bundaberg ginger beer, and “tea” three times a day—this time to the northern state of Queensland.

My hosts, Trevor and Marion Weatherhead live in a charming old farmhouse in cleared former dairy land southeast of Brisbane (pronounced BRIS-bun). The climate of the savannah-like countryside is just warm enough for orange and banana trees to survive, and has a hot dry summer. I visited just after the winter solstice, following heavy rains that broke a six-year drought. The mix of farmland and eucalypt groves is perfect for Trevor to produce Australia’s finest queen bees (what the heck, he was my host!).

Beekeepers in Australia are largely migratory (pronounce that “my-GRATE-ory”), and travel great distances to “shift” their bees from bloom to bloom. There are nearly 800 species of eucalypts (of which only a portion produce commercial honey crops), and it is truly amazing to hear your average Aussie beekeeper identifying them by species, since they all appear similar to the untrained eye (the great variety of bark colors and textures really caught my attention). I was fortunate in that Trevor, being an ex forester, is an encyclopedia of eucalypt and other tree facts.

Sunrise at Trevor and Marion Weatherhead’s Queensland farm. The pond in the clump of trees holds water for the first time in six years, due to drought. Photos by the author unless otherwise indicated.

In general, for any species, an Aussie beekeeper can describe the quality and yield of the honey, the nutritional value (to bees) of the pollen (colonies can go downhill hard on winter-blooming eucalypts with poor pollen), the timing of the bloom, the quality of the bud set, and the last time it flowered (the majority do not flower regularly—some flower yearly, some every other year, some every three years or longer, and all are dependent upon rainfall). Since any individual species of tree may not bloom in any particular year, beekeepers may maintain scattered honey locations in national forests in reserve.

These paid locations in forest reserves are a hot political issue, as some vehement environmentalists are pressing to exclude managed honey bees from the national forests (despite the fact that the robust feral population would remain). Just how important are these leases to beekeepers? Toowoomba area beekeeper Rodney Ruge (outgoing president of the Queensland association) pays the $100 yearly rent to hold onto each of some two hundred sites spread over different sorts of forests (that’s $20,000 a year!) so that he can chase honey wherever it is in a certain year. In a good year he’ll make 150 tons of honey off 1400 hives.

A commercial honey producer spends a great deal of time off in the truck, sometimes far from home, scouting for flows. He must have an intimate knowledge of each location and each species of eucalypt—and check to see if they are producing flower buds and how soon they look to bloom. The owner of the operation may be off in the field scouting while his crew is elsewhere loading up hives for shifting to the next flow. They may not know where they are going to take them until they call the owner/scout on the cell phone to find out which location looks most promising. Even then, if the flow doesn’t prove itself, they may shift the bees again to another location after a few days.

Trevor Weatherhead scouting for bloom. The bees gather nectar and pollen from the tops of the tall eucalypts. Trevor is determining the condition of the buds. When they open, birds move in to noisily work the bloom.

When scouting for bloom, one does not look at ground level for potential forage—one looks up to the tops of the tall trees. There may be a dozen different species of eucalypts in any one area, each blooming at different times over a 7-8 month period, dependent upon rainfall (in other areas, beekeepers may pull honey twelve months of the year). Some years, only the Spotted Gum may bloom appreciably. Luckily, this species has highly nutritious pollen.

And pull honey they do! It appeared to me that an Aussie beekeeper has earned bragging rights if he produced an average of a drum of honey per hive in a year (yes, that’s about 640 pounds). In speaking with beekeepers, it seemed that you’d be lucky to hit this figure once in your career.

Aussie beekeepers generally run bees in single brood chambers, with an excluder above, and swap out “stickies” (extracted supers) often. Many practice “barrier” management to avoid spreading AFB, and return the same combs and boxes to the same hives each time (oxytetracycline is not allowed to be used prophylactically for AFB control in Australia, but can be used to clean up EFB (you can figure it out from there)). Many beekeepers take advantage of Steritech’s irradiation facilities, and sterilize pallets of 42 boxes of combs at a time. The cost is the equivalent of US $220 at15kgy dose of radiation, which will kill AFB, EFB, and chalkbrood (the cheaper10kgy will only kill AFB). For those of you without calculators, that works out to $5.25/box, not counting trucking.

The availability of irradiation not only keeps brood diseases at a minimum, but also allows beekeeper Rod Palmer to include sterilized honey and pollen in his “Palmer’s Patties”—commonly used pollen “biscuits” based on soy and yeast. Although Dr. Doug Somerville (Fat Bees, Skinny Bees) has gone to great extent to educate Aussie beekeepers about the value of supplemental protein feeding, most were surprised to hear the extent to which U.S. commercial beekeepers are feeding their colonies these days.

Beekeeper/manufacturer/supplier Rod Palmer holding some of his “Palmer’s Patties”—a firm soy/yeast/pollen/honey biscuit that is inserted between the frames above the queen excluder. It looks like Rod could use a few more pockets!

I visited some of Trevor Weatherhead’s apiaries in the dead of winter, a few days after the winter solstice (not only does one change seasons when you go down under, but the midday winter sun is to the north instead of the south, which plays hell with figuring out which directions east and west are). We hit one yard just at dusk; the air was chilly, but the bees were still flying. As soon as I set foot into the beeyard, I found the air to be redolent with the butterscotch aroma of ripening Spotted Gum honey. At the same time, my ears were treated to the squabble from above produced by of a variety of nectar- and pollen-eating birds signifying that the flow was on. Beekeepers “shifting” hives in the evening can tell if the flow is on by the chatter of the flying fox fruit bats working the blossoms.

Top bars of the honey super in one of Trevor’s hives working spotted gum in the middle of winter. Note the white wax being produced! Trevor color codes his frames so that he can rotate them out on a regular basis (to avoid spore buildup—Aussie beekeepers don’t need to use miticides, and Trevor’s bees aren’t exposed to pesticides).

It occurred to me that the selection for bees that will work the winter honey flows in Australia may be why imported Australian bees have the reputation of working well in cool or wet weather.

The eucalypt flows can produce honey copiously, and supers may be swapped on a weekly basis. Some beekeepers extract in portable trailers, others in spotless honey houses (Australia has a strict quality assurance program for honey processing). Aussie honeys taste very different from American honeys, and several have a buttery richness that is a delightful surprise to the palate!

Much of the honey produced in Queensland is sold to the Capilano cooperative. Beekeeping Services Manager Bill Winner graciously gave me a complete tour of the large and complex plant. This is a state-of-the-art, highly automated facility that produces their own injection-molded plastic bottles to order on site.

Capilano rents these 40-gallon plastic drums to beekeepers—they are sturdy, easy to pour from, and don’t rust. Each drum is sampled and tracked by a bar code. Much honey is also sold in 275-gallon totes.

A portion of the filtering portion of the Capilano plant. The plant can process 36 drums of honey per hour, and packs in a variety of consumer-friendly containers.

These robotic arms neatly stack boxes of honey onto pallets. The robot on the right also feeds materials to the one on the left. They are mesmerizing to watch, and save sore backs!

Trevor also took me to the University of Queensland’s Queensland Brain Institute to visit the “cluey blokes” (as in clued in). I chatted with Drs. Charles Claudianos and Mandyam “Srini” Srinivasan. These guys are using bees as lab animals to investigate the molecular neuroscience of memory formation, and to determine just how a bee (or robot) can judge how far or fast it’s flown, how it lands smoothly, and how it can differentiate between images (Srini is actually training bees to recognize the styles of different classical painters!). He made headlines a while back when he demonstrated that bees can keep a running tally, counting up to four novel objects.

Dr. Mandyam “Srini” Srinivasan demonstrates his apparatus to determine how bees judge flight speed and distance traveled.

Cairns—a Tropical Playground

The Queensland Beekeepers Association lured members to its winter convention by holding it in the tropical tourist and “backpacker” (Australian for young tourists traveling on the cheap with backpacks) destination of Cairns (pronounced variously “Cairns, Canes, Carns, Cans”) in the far north end of Queensland. When I was invited, I Googled the name, and the first item that came up was that the City Council, in a misguided attempt at modesty, had recently passed an ordinance prohibiting topless women’s beach volleyball! The reader can only imagine my disappointment! Nevertheless, Cairns still hosts two World Heritage sites—the ancient Australian tropical rainforest, and the Great Barrier Reef—both of which held great interest for me.

The rainforest was a true wonder. It is a remnant of the ancient forest that covered the super-continent Gondwana before it split into the various Southern Hemisphere landmasses. The rainforest has at times covered the entire Australian continent during wet periods, but is now restricted to a strip of monsoonal land at the far north. It contains a spectacular assembly of vines and epiphytic plants growing on the trunks and branches of towering trees. Interestingly, the arid-adapted eucalypts are completely
absent from the rainforest.

Vines and epiphytes growing on a rainforest tree near Kuranga. This is an ancient remnant rainforest that predates the extinction of the dinosaurs! To walk through it feels like traveling back in time. Although it covers only about a tenth of a percent of Australia’s landmass, it is home to half the continent’s bird species, a third of its mammals, and a quarter of its reptiles!

Just inland from the rainforest, and at higher elevation, are the temperate Tablelands, where I saw mango, banana, lychee, and banana plantations. Some of the orchards are covered with netting to prevent the parrots and flying fox bats from eating all the fruit! Beekeepers move bees into the orchards to pollinate the crops, although they worry about how many bees get eaten by Rainbow Bee Eater birds (the hives must be placed on raised stands to protect the bees from depredation by cane toads).

In some areas, beekeepers must elevate their hives to prevent depredation by cane toads. This clever pallet style is used by Tablelands beekeeper Rod Marti. The legs fold up for lifting with his large boom loader, which picks up two 4-way pallets of hives, one on top of the other.

Some mango farmers utilize a rather macabre method to avoid paying beekeepers for pollination services—when they are on the road, they pick up the road kill corpses of kangaroos and wallabies and toss them into the back of the “ute” (utility vehicle; pronounced “yute”—a pickup truck) and then later dump the carcasses to rot in their mango groves. The clouds of blowflies produced pollinate the crop when they seek a nectar meal from the trees! Tough for a beekeeper to compete! This might give California almond growers some ideas.

When visiting Cairns, one is warned about the dangers lurking in all environments: sharks and deadly box jellies in the warm sea, ferocious crocodiles in the rivers, and venomous snakes on land. However, my scientific observation is that, due to the reverse direction in which traffic flows, that the greatest threat to an adult male American beekeeper is the likelihood of inadvertently stepping into oncoming traffic on the busy esplanade while one’s attention is momentarily diverted by the some beachwear-clad shiela. This traveling is a dangerous job, but someone’s got to do it!

The Asian Bee Incursion–Trying to Find a Needle in a Haystack

The Asian bee, Apis cerana. These bees are smaller than A. mellifera, form small colonies, and swarm frequently. They can be a nuisance around habitations due to their defensiveness. Photo from CSIRO.

Australia has suffered egregiously from the import of various exotic plants and animals that have later proven to become invasive pests. Aussie beekeepers are currently learning to live with the small hive beetle (discovered in 2002), which is causing them much slimy grief. Another potential invader that is of great interest to the U.S. bee industry is the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana (Java strain). The story begins in 1997, when the Indonesian government began shipping subsistence farmers from their overcrowded country to the territory of Irian Jaya at the west end of New Guinea. Although the Java strain of cerana does not produce appreciable honey, due to its tiny colonies, the islanders took it with them for medicinal purposes.

The bee rapidly spread throughout the island (similar to the spread of the Africanized bee), in some cases displacing the previously established European bee (Apis mellifera)—perhaps by competition, and possibly by carrying novel parasites (such as nosema and viruses). As the politics of geography would have it, Australia owns three small islands within a figurative stone’s throw of Papua New Guinea (PNG), and the bees swarmed across the sea to colonize them. This technically meant that Apis cerana was established on Australian soil, which would have prevented export of honey bees to countries in which it was not already present.

Of greater import to the country is that the Asian bee, due to its tendency to flood an area with small colonies, could devastate the Aussie bee industry, become a nuisance around human habitations, and likely wreak ecological havoc throughout a substantial portion of Australia. Therefore, it is considered to be a major biosecurity threat (although some may question whether the politicians who must allocate funds for eradication during the current economic crisis are sufficiently aware of its potential impact).

I should also mention at this point, that there are two other bee mites of interest in PNG—Dr. Denis Anderson discovered last year that the sister mite to Varroa destructor, V. jacobsoni, had moved onto Apis mellifera. Of special interest to beekeepers is that a mite of Apis dorsata (the Giant Honey Bee), Tropilaelaps clareae, is infecting the Apis mellifera on the island, with devastating consequences. Australian and American beekeepers definitely do not want this mite (Baker 2005)!

The government has set up an Asian Bee exclusion zone in the Torres Strait that separates the infested islands from the mainland. I am purposely avoiding the details and politics involved, as the Asian bee eradication is a coordinated effort of a number of state and federal agencies plus the beekeeping industry, and involves international shipping and trade issues.

Map detail of the critical Asian bee area. The Protected Zone is a “bee free” zone, other than the Apis cerana on the red-circled islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea (from which they have not spread further since about 1992). Only a few mellifera colonies exist in the Quarantine Zone. No movement of bees is allowed in either zone. Tropilaelaps mites also exist on PNG, but do not infest Apis cerana.

Colonies of Asian bees occasionally show up at Australian shipping ports, but are normally intercepted and eradicated on the ship, or trapped at the harbor (a National Sentinel Hive Program has operated since year 2000 at twenty-seven ports). Unfortunately, one colony apparently slipped through into the port in Cairns. In May of 2007, local beekeeper Maurie Damon was called to remove nuisance bees from the mast of a yacht in dry dock. Maurie, who runs bees for pollination in the tablelands above Cairns, immediately recognized that the bees were unusual and reported them to the authorities (who at first were a wee bit slow to respond, but to Maurie’s amusement immediately jumped into frenzied action once they realized that the bees were the exotic Asian). The short story is that more colonies were found, apparently all having swarmed from some original colony that had arrived earlier.

It appeared that the invasion had been caught early enough to attempt eradication. The Queensland Department of Primary Industries is the lead agency of the effort, and enlisted the help of the Queensland Beekeepers Association, of which Trevor Weatherhead chaired the Quarantine Committee, and currently serves as president. He has been actively involved in the eradication effort, and invited me to attend a tour of the field operation, along with Rodney Ruge, and Nick Annand and Dr. Doug Somerville from the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

The point man for the Asian bee containment and eradication program is beekeeper Wim de Jong, who has the demeanor of a military commander. Wim leads a fit, young crew of ten members who work full-time in the field. Their mission is to scout for the presence of Asian bees in every area, and then to locate and destroy each individual colony (the bees tend to nest in small, dark cavities). As you might imagine, spotting the scarce Asian forager in the lush landscape, and differentiating it from the backdrop of feral European bees (there are few managed colonies in Cairns, due to the extreme summer heat and humidity) is akin to finding needles in a haystack.

Biosecurity Queensland surveillance manager Wim de Jong inspects a swarm of Asian honey bees on a Green Hill property before it was destroyed. Photo © State of Queensland.

I must confess that when I first viewed the verdant hillsides around Cairns, I couldn’t imagine how one could actually locate and eradicate every colony of Asian bee. However, after visiting several sites with Wim and his crew, I feel that they have a good chance at success, provided that the bees have not moved into the mountains (they appear to prefer the lowlands). In fact, the one colony that he was trying to track when I was there has now been found and destroyed—good onya, mate! The team’s degree of success should be made evident with the coming of spring—say about September.

A view from the hills overlooking Cairns. The rainforest starts just above this elevation, where there is more rainfall. The ocean (and the Great Barrier Reef) are in the far background to the left. This terrain challenges Wim’s crew in their efforts to exterminate the Asian bee.

The Asian colonies are few and small, so spotting even a single forager takes skill and considerable luck. Part of that luck is that there is little forage for the bees in either the mangrove swamps or surrounding hillsides at certain times of the year. At those times, the bees are forced to visit the relatively flat land around the town of Cairns, which includes vast acreages of sugar cane fields, residences, crocodile-infested streams and lagoons, and a shipping port (or, perhaps they simply go dormant—no one is quite sure). When they do visit, pollen analysis of the combs indicates that they mainly visit the flowers of tall palms (which are hard to monitor) and a handful of local flora, which they prefer to bait stations. The resourceful team also located some colonies on a salty mangrove island by training foragers to pans of fresh water placed on the decks of boats!

A problem, however, is as the colonies are eradicated, each subsequent one becomes harder to find, since there are simply so few foragers spread over so much forage area. Sugar syrup bait stations, scented with oil of lavender, are set up on a 1 kilometer (6/10th of a mile) grid. Once the presence of Asian bees is detected in an area, the crew must then specifically locate the source of the bees—and it may be more than one colony, since the Asian bee swarms frequently. This process initially sometimes took weeks, but the crew has improved their techniques to the point that colonies are typically located within a few days, even in heavily forested areas.

Their most effective strategy is to locate what Wim calls “mega gardens”—spots where there is a mixed patch of favored flowers. In order to make the job easier, the crew may exterminate feral European bee colonies. They then train the Asian foragers to a sugar bait station, so that they can begin the process of beelining. In some cases, they can use the triangulation process perfected by Dr. Adrian Wenner on California’s Santa Cruz Island. Unfortunately, this method does not work consistently for Apis cerana, since the returning foragers may not follow a straight beeline home—they tend to fly low (perhaps to avoid bee eater birds) and careen around trees in a zigzag manner (Wim showed me one location where the foragers actually flew under a paved road via a culvert!).

To improve on the triangulation method (in which bearings are taken on return forager flight paths from multiple sites, and then plotted on a map to see where they cross), the crew very accurately times the round trip for marked foragers (which gives the distance to the colony within a few meters).

Luckily again, the team has two allies—the first being “passive surveillance” by a cooperative public. Indeed, of the 32 colonies located by the date of my visit, 16 were reported by locals. A more unusual ally is the aforementioned Rainbow Bee Eater. This beautiful bird (regarded as a pestiferous predator by local beekeepers, especially in queen mating yards) tends to return to favored roosting sites. The team has spread white canvas sheets under some of these roosts, and collects the regurgitated pellets of undigested insect parts. These pellets can then be reconstituted in water and microscopically examined for the presence of Apis cerana wing parts (or more recently, analyzed for cerana DNA).

For those of you bursting with suggestions, the task force has tested every sort of attractant for Asian bees, both in Cairns, and in the Solomon Islands (in cooperation with Dr. Denis Anderson). They’ve tried essential oils, honeys, beeswax, bait hives, and (at some great expense) synthesized synthetic Apis cerana orientation pheromone. I’ve suggested that they explore the acoustic or laser tracking techniques developed by Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk.

Australians are big on Biosecurity (Anon 2006), and do an incredible job at stopping pest incursions. They have to date been commendably successful at eradicating incursions of exotic bees and mites. Of note is the fact that the giant honeybee, Apis dorsata, has been intercepted at least five times at Australian ports (Boland 2005). This bee is the natural host of the mite Tropilaelaps clareae, although none have been found in the interceptions. Australian Biosecurity has its job cut out for it to prevent the incursion of the two varroa mites, the tracheal mite, Tropilaelaps, the Asian bee, and the African bee!

World Trade in Honey Bees

Author’s note: the topic of Australian bee imports is currently a political hot potato. I have friends and acquaintances who export and import the bees, as well as those who are actively trying to block such imports. I hope that I can report on this topic in an objective manner without stepping on toes!

There are a number of countries that are eager to capture part of the U.S. market for queens and bees (Chile, Argentina, and Mexico come immediately to mind). We are currently living in a global economy, in which the normal barriers to pest and parasite movement (the oceans, deserts, mountain ranges, etc.) no longer apply. World Trade Organization (WTO) rules specifically state that given a choice of sanitary measures which will deliver the level of health protection deemed appropriate by the importing country, WTO members must choose the one which will have the least restriction on trade. So free trade supersedes precautionary caution. Unfortunately, this is where the politics of trade crash into biological reality.

We must realize that the beekeeping industry is a mere nit relative to larger U.S. trade issues, and that our interests may well be sacrificed if the leverage of a politically connected commodity requires a quid pro quo of opening our borders to bee imports from another country.

The reader may wish to read Matheson (2000):

“North America provides an interesting example of how industries have suffered from movement of pests and diseases. In less than the last 30 years there have been a number of [pests imported into] North American beekeeping: chalkbrood…1972, tracheal mites…1984, varroa…1987, the small hive beetle…1998, [and] the Africanised [sic] honeybee…in 1990.

“This is happening on a world scale as well. The warnings have been apparent, about the seriousness of varroa and tropilaelaps for instance, yet still we have managed to shift varroa around most the world and tropilaelaps to at least one other continent. It appears we aren’t even learning from our mistakes.”

Biologically, the movement of bees across oceans increases what Darwin called the “herd size”—which means that by sharing what used to be localized parasites, there is more chance for virulent parasites to evolve in the larger worldwide “herd.” Our agricultural inspection processes can slow the spread of parasites, but eventually some will slip through. It’s akin to avoiding shark attacks. Any person’s chances at getting eaten by a shark are generally slim, but are nearly nonexistent if you don’t swim in the ocean. And the chance of spreading a parasite (such as a new form of virus) is far less if you don’t ship live bees from one continent to the next. Please note that the shipment of cages of live bees is far more risky than the importation of say, semen, which can be carefully screened, and then used to inseminate queens on a quarantine island (which is exactly what Australia allows).

From a business standpoint, of course the Aussies want the American market, and conversely, some Americans don’t want the competition. The Australians and New Zealanders are currently sitting in the catbird seat, since they lack some of our parasites, so that trade is in only one direction. One unfortunate consequence of this appears to be the recent introduction of the varroa mite into Hawaii, through which packages of mite-infested bees were transshipped to Canada. In the larger picture, however, unless the U.S. acts in tandem with Canada and Mexico to ban shipments of bees into the entire continent, parasites imported into any of the countries could quickly spread to the others.

A surprising point brought up by Fischer (2005) is that strict adherence to WTO rules would supersede state laws, and would, for example, allow the import of small hive beetle-infested package bees from Australia into a state of the U.S. which was previously free of SHB, since WTO rules only apply to pests present in the country as a whole!

Another amazing fact is that once a shipper of bees from another country has filled out the required paperwork, a shipment can breeze right through customs in the U.S. without even a cursory inspection! No one on this end may even check to confirm that the bees actually are parasite free (although APHIS did inspect some loads this season). (Sounds like a smuggler’s dream.)

A point of biological concern is that we do not yet have the technology to detect an unknown virus. Even if a load were tested for viruses, we only have primers available for about eight of the twenty-some known bee viruses. Any of the other twelve, or a novel virus, or a virulent mutation of a known virus, could skate right past our noses, and we wouldn’t even know.

So who decides if imports are worth the risk? Matheson notes:

“Countries [cannot] refuse imports because they don’t consider there to be enough benefits to the importing country. Remember that trade may be restricted on health grounds only where there is an identifiable risk to be managed. It is up to customers in the importing country to decide if they want to purchase imported goods, not the government” [emphasis mine].

This is a scary thought—that say, an individual almond pollinator under pressure to find bees on the short term may have more legal standing than APHIS, which is looking out for our industry on the long term!

So let’s return to the Aussie imports. I’ve spoken at length with Drs. Doug Somerville and Denis Anderson about the potential for Australia to export either Apis cerana or Tropilaelaps mite (to date, Australia contains neither varroa, tracheal, nor Tropilaelaps mites). They note that the cerana incursion is geographically far removed from any beekeepers who export bees. Dr. Somerville points out that it would be virtually impossible for a beekeeper not to notice a cerana colony if he were shaking bees. Dr. Anderson observes that no mites have been found on any of the captured swarms, and that in any case, the mite with which we are most concerned—Tropilaelaps—does not parasitize Apis cerana. While that mite has occasionally been found in brood combs of A. cerana in Myanmar and Pakistan, it has not been detected on brood or adult bees in A. cerana colonies in those areas of Papua New Guinea where the mite exists in A. mellifera colonies. So in reality, there is currently virtually no conceivable way that today’s Aussie packages would contain either Asian bees or parasitic mites of any sort (although they could conceivably contain viruses, small hive beetle, or insects such as the (harmless) cockroaches sometimes found in Aussie hives).

From a legal and trade standpoint, we are party to WTO rules, which state that if a country has not been found to contain certain identified parasites, then the shipment of bees cannot be restricted to another country that is currently free of said parasites. Australian bees do not currently host any known parasites not yet established in the U.S. It appears to me that unless A. ceranae escapes from the Cairns area, or unless a foreign mite becomes established in Australia, or unless the WTO rules are modified, that there is little legal backing for excluding Aussie imports into the U.S.

Late Breaking News

Media Release
21 August 2009

Mareeba detection opens new front in Asian honey bee battle

SEARCH-and-destroy operations against Asian honey bees have expanded after an unexpected detection in the Mareeba area this week.
A Biosecurity Queensland team is on the hunt for more Asian honey bee infestations in the area. This is the 40th colony of Asian honey bees (Apis cerana) found in two years since the initial incursion in Cairns two years ago.

I’m not sure if this is bad news or not. Mareeba lies in the aforementioned Tablelands inland from the mountains surrounding Cairns. This find might appear to indicate that the containment line has been breached, and that at least one swarm has flown over the hills. Prior to this find, the furthest swarm from the original site was at about 20 km (less than 15 miles). The Mareeba find is another 30 km further.

However, Trevor (pers comm) feels that it more likely that the swarm arrived independently in a container of reels of wire at the port in Cairns. If this is indeed the case, then Wim may still be winning the battle!

I’m not sure how Biosecurity Australia will respond to this development. An expanded eradication effort will take funding, and the Aussie economy is currently strapped. This is a story that is worth following closely. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for my hardworking Aussie mates!


I wish to express my profound gratitude to Trevor and Marion Weatherhead, who shared their home with me (at which Trevor took the title photo of kangaroos boxing), and took the time to haul me all around the area, and to the many other Aussie beekeepers who made my visit informative and enjoyable. Special thanks to Dr. Doug Somerville, and Dr. Denis Anderson for sharing their deep knowledge of Australian beekeeping and parasitic mite issues.


Anon (2006) AUSVETPLAN Disease Strategy, Bee diseases and pests Version 3.0. Primary Industries Ministerial Council, Australia. http://www.animalhealthaustralia.com.au/fms/Animal%20Health%20Australia/AUSVETPLAN/BEE3_0-18FINAL(09Jun06).pdf

Baker, RA, A Hick, W Chmielewski (2005) Aspects of the history and biogeography of the bee mites Tropilaelaps clareae and T. koenigerum. Journal of Apicultural Science 49(2):13-19. http://www.jas.org.pl/jas_49_2_2005_2.pdf

Boland, P (2005) A Review of the National Sentinel Hive Program. Biosecurity Australia

Fischer, James (2005) Where are we going? And what’s with this handbasket? Bee Culture January 2005 pp. 33-34 bee-quick.com/reprints/regs.pdf

Matheson, A (2000) Managing risks in World Trade in bees and bee products. Apiacta, 2000, 35 (1), 1 – 12 http://www.beekeeping.org/apiacta/managing_risks.htm