Varroa mite is a small parasitic mite that attaches itself to honey bees. By feeding, it weakens the bees and can spread harmful viruses. Until 2022, Australia was believed to be free of the mite. In June of that year, the mite was detected in so-called “sentinel hives” at the Port of Newcastle. And it had already spread. Within two months of the first mites being detected, at least 99 New South Wales sites were infected including the Hunter Valley, the coast around Coffs Harbour and inland at Narrabri.
The mite poses a threat not just to the honey industry but to a whole range of agricultural crops. According to an Australian Government fact sheet, around 65 per cent of agricultural production in Australia relies on pollination by European honey bees. Certain fruit trees, including almonds, apples, pears and cherries are almost completely dependent on bees for pollination.
Initially, there were moves to eradicate the varroa mite. Many hives were destroyed and the bees were euthanased. Strict protocols were put in place to limit the movement of hives, especially across state borders. This caused problems for apiarists, many of whom regularly move millions of bees thousands of kilometres to coincide with the seasonal demands of crop growers – the largest movement of livestock in Australia.
While no country in the world has successfully eradicated the Varroa mite, efforts led by theNSW Department of Primary Industries continued for more than a year. However, in September 2023 it was announced that the strategy would shift from eradication to management. In heavily infested zones, categorised as “red” zones, beekeepers could opt to euthanase their bees and receive compensation, but the destruction of hives would no longer be mandatory.
A spokesman for the NSW Department of Primary Industries told the ABC:
There will be free movement allowed within the management zones, there will be movement allowed between those existing management zones under secure conditions and there will also be an opportunity for movement under permit with certain conditions based on risk inside and out of that zone.
The varroa mite is managed elsewhere in the world and there are chemical controls that can kill mites without damaging the bees. Of course, this involves additional costs and work for beekeepers.
As of September 2023, the mite had not been detected outside of New South Wales. Other states now require permits for the movement of hives across state borders.