What can Covid-19 teach us about varroa?

Uncapped drone brood with varroa. Image courtesy of Rod Bourke

Now more than ever, we are aware of how fast pathogens can spread. A single case can quickly be transmitted and turned into thousands more.

Parasitic varroa mites are a lot like Covid-19. The mites are hard to spot, can spread easily, and it’s a matter of ‘when’ they arrive in Australia, not ‘if’.

A varroa outbreak in Australia would have major consequences. It is estimated that if varroa were to establish here, 95–100 per cent of the feral honey bee colonies in Australia would die, greatly reducing pollination services. Management pressures from the pest, would likely cause 50–60 per cent of Australian beekeepers (mostly recreational and side-liners/semi-commercial) to leave the industry. Commercial beekeepers would likely remain, however they would be challenged by increased labour costs to keep hives alive and productive.

So far, Australia has fared relatively well throughout the coronavirus pandemic and are fortunate to be one of the few nations free from Varroa destructor. However, as we know from Covid-19, we must remain vigilant.

Considering the similarities between Covid-19 and varroa, we can apply what we have learnt from the coronavirus pandemic to bee biosecurity practices.

The importance of testing

Exotic Plant Pest HotlineThrough the pandemic, we have all come to appreciate the benefits of testing for pathogens. Regular testing is the most effective way to detect outbreaks early and prevent further spread. It’s an integral part of any containment and eradication program. Under the Australian Honey Bee Industry Biosecurity Code of Practice, all beekeepers must check at least one hive in each apiary for exotic mites twice per year, at least four calendar months apart (e.g. April and again in September). This can be done by sugar shake, drone uncapping, or alcohol wash.

Importantly, if you do find mites on your honey bees or in the brood, call the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline 1800 084 881.

Contact tracing is invaluable

When an outbreak happens, it’s important that all contacts can be traced quickly so they can be tested and quarantined. For beekeepers, the equivalent of this is being registered with your state agriculture department.

Every beekeeper and their hives should be registered. This information helps to understand biosecurity risks, for example beekeeper densities, and be able to contact beekeepers in the event of a local outbreak.

Help us to help you: make sure your hives are branded and your registration details are up to date.

Success comes from shared responsibility

Maintaining Australia’s Covid-free status has relied on everyday people doing their part: maintaining social distance, hygiene practices and wearing a mask when required. In the same way, maintaining our varroa-free status is only possible when everyone shares the responsibility.

The Bee Biosecurity Officers of the National Bee Biosecurity Program work to mitigate risks by:

However, for each biosecurity officer there are at least 100,000 managed beehives. Incursions are most likely to begin at the ports and be detected through the sentinel hives, like the 2018 detection of V. destructor in Port Melbourne. However, varroa could quickly spread through urban beehives and make their way to rural, commercial beekeeping operations. Therefore, all beekeepers, regardless of whether you have two or 200 hives or live in the city or country, need to check their hives for exotic mites.

We all want to keep Australia Covid-free and varroa-free, so we all need to practice good biosecurity: keep washing your hands and checking your hives for mites.

Acknowledgement: By Jessica Moran, Project Officer, WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development