Bee populations face multiple challenges as Varroa mite and La Niña make for a difficult spring

As spring flowers begin to bloom and temperatures rise, vulnerable bee populations are beginning to pop up for what will be their busiest time of year. La Nina

But the predicted wet La Niña conditions could pose a challenge to bees searching for pollen among limited flowering plants, in their efforts to support healthy hives and feed hungry swarms.

Gippsland beekeeper and educator Bill Ringin said swarming was a common occurrence in the spring.

“Swarming is the natural process of bees, where especially if the colony gets too crowded, the old queen and about half the bees will decide they’re going to make another hive,” the Trafalgar East man said.

After keeping bees for the past 60 years, Mr. Ringin noted that bees tended to stay a short distance from the parent hive and make communal decisions to set up camp in different locations.

“Before the swarm leaves the hive, the queen will have laid some eggs in cells called queen cells that prepare the worker bees,” he said.

“That then provides the original hive with a new queen.”

Mr. Ringin has had up to 50 hives at a time during his six decades of beekeeping. (ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas )

Only a few days of mating during her lifetime, the queen lays two types of eggs; a sterile egg that will hatch into a male drone bee, and a fertile egg that will be fertilized with sperm stored in her abdomen and that will hatch into a female worker bee.

A bee becomes a queen bee when a cell receives a special nutritional secretion known as royal jelly, which allows the larvae to develop reproductive organs and reach a point of sexual maturity.

Mr. Ringin said that when those queens hatch, one of them would take over the original colony.

Bees depicted crawling over wooden planks of a beehive
Mr. Ringin trains aspiring beekeepers on the behavior of bees.(ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas )

Decreased Ecosystems Affecting Bee Populations

Mr Ringin said environmental changes, habitat loss, the dietary restrictions of monoculture species in major crops and the cumulative effects of chemicals and insecticides used in intensive farming have all contributed to declining bee populations.

“We don’t really measure how those things interact,” he said.

“All we’re interested in is whether a particular crop looks more attractive or stays on the shelf a bit longer or whether the taste might get better.”

“It may be beneficial to the gardeners or to humans. It may not be beneficial to the rest of the environmental critters out there.”

Stay vigilant against Varroa

Australia was in the enviable position of being the only country on Earth that didn’t have Varroa, Ringin said.

“We’ve had a few raids in Australia, but we managed to come out of it,” he said.

But the recent resurgence in New South Wales of the vector parasitic mite that feeds on the bee’s soft tissues is cause for concern, he said.

Mites on a bee
Varroa mites can pierce the skin of bees and infect them with harmful insects, viruses and bacteria.(Supplied: NSW Department of Primary Industries)

“You can kill Varroa by freezing it, but if you look at farming on a large acre and a lot of beehives, you just can’t control it effectively that way,” he said.

“Varroa is very good at piggybacking on bees and then switching from one bee to another, which can then potentially shift it from a colony that is infected to a colony that is not infected.”

He said current drugs ran the risk of endangering the overall health of the bees or contaminating bee products, such as honey.

He also notes that Varroa mites can develop resistance to several chemicals, only a few of which are legally approved for mass use in Australia.

Man with a smoke can in the carport
Mr. Ringin with his smoker, which is used to calm the bees. (ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas)

“The other way to deal with the Varroa is to look at the bees we have. Can we breed a bee that is either more tolerant to Varroa or resistant to Varroa,” he said.

Bees are typically protected from most viruses and bacteria through an exoskeleton, but the Varroa mites’ ability to pierce the bee’s skin makes the bee vulnerable to a viral load of insects, viruses and bacteria.

Because the mite hinders bee development, infected bees will most likely have a shorter lifespan, become more lethargic and more susceptible to a range of health problems.

If bees can’t defend themselves, they risk being invaded by other bee colonies looking to loot their reserves, which can then contract Verroa and related diseases.

lonely stack of beehives in a backyard
Mr Ringin says it is important that beekeepers know how to take good care of bees.(ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas)

Mr Ringin said the commercial European honey bees are particularly vulnerable to Varroa because they did not evolve with the disease.

“If Varroa invades European honeybees, it will have a devastating effect. Over time, it will kill the hive and all the hives,” he said.

Mr Ringin said it would take a concerted and vigilant effort by authorities, farmers and beekeepers to monitor and protect individual bee populations from the ongoing threat of Varroa as researchers try to find a solution.

“If you can get a biological control instead of a pharmaceutical or chemical control, you’re probably a lot better off,” he said.

“A biological control will leave you with minimal residues and hopefully better protection to develop tolerance.”

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