Sudden change in battle against outbreak threatening Aussie food supply

Rules around biosecurity zones which were set up to protect honey bees from Varroa mites have been relaxed.

NSW authorities have announced a sudden change in its biosecurity controls used to combat an invasive pest that threatens honey bees used to pollinate crops.

To combat the Varroa mite outbreak which has rapidly spread down the NSW coast and to isolated inland areas since it was detected in 2022 at a Newcastle port, the Department of Agriculture limited the movement of bees.

Emergency zones were marked out on a map and those within them were banned from moving their bee hives. Red designates eradication zones, and purple indicates an area under surveillance. On Tuesday it was announced hives in four select purple areas can once again be moved, a decision designed to help pollination around almond farms.

A map showing Euston, Euroley, Nericon and Balranald varroa mite zones circled.
Hives in purple zones at Euston, Euroley, Nericon and Balranald can now be moved. Source: DPI

The four impacted towns are within the state’s Sunraysia and Riverina regions, but the 30,000 hives within the region’s red zone can’t be moved for now. Hives in purple zones in other parts of the state also need to stay put.

Decision to relax restrictions raises concerns

The decision has prompted concerns at advocacy group Invasive Species Council which is concerned weaker regulations could trigger further spread.

Its CEO Andrew Cox said it was a “big setback” that Varroa mite reached the Riverina’s agricultural plains, but he believes its spread to the region likely occurred because someone wasn’t “following the rules” in an infected zone elsewhere in the state.

“I think now is the time to be more vigilant… we need to make sure there’s better compliance and strong restrictions on movement because that’s the only way we’ll stop it spreading and eradicate it,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

Reads 'What on Earth? Australia has the worst record of mammal extinction in the world.' with a collage of Australian animals and landscape.
Discover more of our environment coverage.

What are Varroa mites?

  • Varroa mites are red-brown coloured external honey bee parasites.

  • They feed on larvae and pupae in the hive.

  • Untreated honey bee colonies infected with the mite eventually die.

Why beating Varroa mite is so important

It’s not the first time there has been a Varroa mite outbreak in Australia, they were detected in 2016, 2019 and 2020 in Townsville. Nationally, there is a $132 million response plan in place to try and combat its spread.

In July, the NSW agriculture minister Tara Moriarty warned the current Varroa mite outbreak will add around $52 million in annual apiary management expenses.

Varroa mites can be seen sitting on a honey bee.

A Varroa mite can be seen sitting on a honey bee. Source: Getty Imag

Varroa mite is just one of the many invasive species that are harming Australia’s economy and environment. In 2021, the CSIRO estimated collectively they’d cost the country $390 billion over the last 60 years.

Mr Cox looks at Varroa mite as a yardstick in terms of Australia’s ability to combat other outbreaks.

“If we can eradicate Varroa mite we can show our biosecurity systems work. If we don't succeed in eradicating it, I think people will be less optimistic about stopping the next pest or disease. That’s probably what worries me the most,” he said.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new weekly newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.

Banner reads 'What on Earth' with 'Subscribe to our new weekly newsletter' and a collage of images of australian natural wildlife.
Click here to sign up to our newsletter.