March 3, 2011

Asian Bee A Threat To Australia

Beekeepers in Australia called on the government this week to accelerate efforts to eradicate the devastating Asian honeybee while it still has a chance.

The aggressive bees were first detected in far north Queensland about four years ago, and have the potential to wipe out the entire industry.

Known as Apis cerana, the Asian honeybees also attack birds, raising concern for local fauna.  They could be as bad a pest as the cane toad, warned Australian Senator Christine Milne on Wednesday, saying the exotic insect could ultimately threaten Australia's food supply if not controlled.

The cane toad, a prolific breeder that secretes a toxin lethal to some pets and wildlife, has spread throughout tropical Australia since being introduced to kill beetles during the 1930s.  The toad has devoured insects, bird's eggs and native species such as quolls.

"It is the 21st century equivalent of the cane toad and the bee keepers have been saying that for some time," said Senator Milne, who also serves as Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens. 

She described the Asian bee as "a cane toad with wings."

Senator Milne said the bee industry was at risk from an invasion of Apis cerana in the city of Cairns, which was first observed in 2007.

"It is not only our honey supply, our apiarists and our natural environment that will suffer. Australian agriculture is dependent on the pollination services of bees and this is threatened by the Asian honey bee which is a host for the varroa mite," she said.

"In addition, the Asian honey bee is quite aggressive and it is quite possible that it will become a menace in communities across Australia as it nests in cars, buildings, boats and similar places."

The Australian bee industry has called on the government to eradicate the Asian honeybees, which it says undermines European honeybee populations by competing for food, stripping hives and transmitting disease and parasites.

The industry worries that if the Asian species become established, they will destroy European honeybee populations, which are kept in hives and transported throughout Australia to pollinate crops.

Asian bees cannot be kept in boxes, and are therefore not suitable for such pollination methods.

"The Asian honey bee displaces native bees and the impact on our natural environment has not been adequately considered," Senator Milne said.

However, government officials seem likely to abandon efforts to wipe out the Asian bees at the end of April, saying it was "no longer technically feasible to achieve eradication."

Senator Milne objected to the decision, saying the costs had not been adequately considered.

"It is unacceptable that a decision has been made not to go ahead with eradication in the absence of a full cost-benefit analysis of the impact on our agricultural industries, the environment and the honey industry," she said.

Tony Burke, Australia's Sustainability Minister, said the decision was based on sound scientific research.

The move "does not amount to a decision that there will not be continued engagement in other areas other than eradication in terms of control," he told Australia's parliament.

Lindsay Bourke, Chairman of the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, said the industry alone did not have the resources to control the problem.

"The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council cannot foot the bill for the eradication effort required, and that is why we need the federal government to act in the national interest and help protect food security."

Milne joined the council in urging the government to act.

"While there is still real hope, we should be pulling out all stops to protect our much-loved honey industry and our native bees, and I welcome the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council to Canberra to make sure the government changes its mind."


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