Bee populations facing multiple challenges such as the Varroa mite and La Niña make for a difficult spring

As spring flowers begin to bloom and temperatures warm, vulnerable bee populations begin to emerge in what will be the busiest time of the year. La Niña

But the predicted wet La Nina conditions could make it difficult for bees foraging for pollen among limited flowering plants in their efforts to support healthy hives and feed hungry swarms.

Gippsland beekeeper and educator Bill Ringin said it was common for bees to be hunted in the spring.

The Trafalgar Eastman said: “Sliding is a natural process of bees, where basically if the colony gets too crowded, the old queen and about half the bees will decide to start another hive.”

Mr. Ringin, who has been a beekeeper for the past 60 years, observed that bees usually stay close to the mother hive and make collective decisions to set up camp in different locations.

“Before the swarm leaves the hive, the queen will have laid several eggs in cells called queen cells made by the worker bees,” he said.

“It supplies the original hive with a new queen.”

During Mr. Ring’s six decades of beekeeping, he owned up to 50 hives at a time. (ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas )

Mating for only a few days in her lifetime, the queen lays two types of eggs; an infertile egg that will develop into a male drone bee and a fertilized egg that is fertilized by sperm stored in its abdomen and hatches into a female worker bee.

A bee becomes a queen bee when the cell is fed a special nutrient secretion known as royal jelly, which allows the larvae to develop their reproductive organs and reach sexual maturity.

When these queens hatch, one of them will rule the original colony, Mr. Ringin said.

Bees crawl on the wooden shelves of the hive
Mr. Ringin educates aspiring beekeepers about bee behavior.(ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas )

Declining ecosystems impacting bee populations

Mr. Ringin said that environmental change, habitat loss, nutritional limitations of monoculture species on large acreage, and the cumulative effects of chemicals and insecticides used in intensive agriculture have caused bee populations to decline.

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

“All we care about is making a particular product look more attractive or last a little longer on the shelf, or maybe make it taste better.”

“It may be beneficial to horticulturists or humans, but it may not be beneficial to other creatures in the environment.”

Staying vigilant against Varroa

Mr Ringin said Australia was in the enviable position of being the only Varroa-free country in the world.

“We had a few interceptions against Australia, but we were able to get on top of them,” he said.

But the recent re-emergence of the parasitic vector mite, which feeds on the bee’s soft tissues, in New South Wales is a 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.(Supply: NSW Department of Primary Industries)

“You can kill Varroa by freezing, but if you’re looking at large acres of agriculture and lots of beehives, you can’t control it effectively that way,” he said.

“Varroa is very good at getting on bees and then jumping from one bee to another, potentially transferring it from an infected colony to an uninfected colony.”

According to him, existing drugs risk harming the general health of bees or contaminating bee products such as honey.

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

Man holding cigarette case in car park
Mr. Ringin with the smoker used to calm the bees. (ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas)

“Another way to fight Varroa is to look at the bees we have. We can breed bees that are more tolerant to Varroa or resistant to Varroa,” he said.

Bees are normally protected from most viruses and bacteria by their exoskeleton, but the ability of Varroa mites to pierce the skin of bees makes bees vulnerable to the viral load of insects, viruses and bacteria.

Because the mite inhibits bee development, infected bees will have a shorter lifespan, be more lethargic, and be sensitive to a number of health foods.

If the bees are unable to defend themselves, they risk being invaded by other bee colonies that want to plunder their resources, which can then be infected with Verroa and related diseases.

a single pile of beehives in the yard
Mr. Ringin says beekeepers need to understand how to care for their bees properly.(ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas)

Mr Ringin said commercial European honeybees were particularly vulnerable to Varroa because they had not evolved with the disease.

“When Varroa enters European honey bees, it is devastating. Over time, it will kill the hive and all the hives it reaches,” he said.

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

“If you can get more biological control than pharmaceutical or chemical control, you’re probably better off,” he said.

“Biological control will leave you with minimal residues and hopefully provide more protection to develop tolerance.”

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