Saving Australia’s Bees

Could artificial insemination save Aussie bees from the varroa mite?

The world is facing the extinction of important bee species. In Australia, the bee industry is trying to find a way to protect Aussie bees from the varroa mite before it lands down under.

It is a topic of controversy, one that has split the bee industry in Australia. Should we risk developing a bee species immune to the fatal mite and risk introducing other more harmful viruses? Or should we watch idly as Aussie bees die off from the varroa mite?

For some, the answer lies in the genetic creation of a tolerant bee species.

The future of breeding bees may rest in artificial insemination. The process ensures the bees are a genetically superior species. The microscopic procedure could be the answer to the varroa mite problem. By creating a species of bees that are immune to the mite.

The varroa mite is an external parasite that attacks honey bees. It can only reproduce within a honey bee colony and for this reason are responsible for killing off many colonies all over the world. The deadly mite is yet to arrive in Australia.

Just over the water, in New Zealand, the mite is already amongst the bee hives. Bee keepers interested in genetically mutating Aussie bees have flown over kiwi bee sperm to inseminate Aussie bees. However, the cross-breeding of bees presents its own problems: the deformed wing virus.

This virus deforms the wings, shrinking them.

So which virus is more threatening?

Ron Clarke a beekeeper who is involved in the artificial insemination program. believes the varroa mite is far more dangerous than the introduction of the deformed wing virus.

"We should be able to get that stock in here and help us to overcome the shock of varroa because we're going to lose a lot of hives," he explained to the ABC

"In every industry, you're going to get your 'for and against', but at this point in time until the bee keeper feels it hitting his hip pocket he's not exactly in tune with what we're trying to do."

It is believed that both the virus and the mite may arrive in Australia at the same time, as deformed wing is also spread by the varroa mite.

However, there are many that are unsure about the introduction of the virus. Trevor Weatherhead, the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council executive director, explains the risk of such a venture:

"Our biosecurity is paramount within Australia and we want to shut off all pathways that we can that will bring in something that will affect our industry here in Australia," he told the ABC.

Most bee experts agree that it’s only a matter of time till the mite arrives in Australia.

Lead image: The honeybee Apis mellifera (above) is native to Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Now one of the most high-profile bees in North America, A. mellifera is in uncertain health. PHOTOGRAPH BY USGS BEE INVENTORY AND MONITORING LABORATORY

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