June 17, 2008 / 7:41 AM / 12 years ago

Australia urged to protect its honey worker bees

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia’s honey bees, crucial to worldwide food production, need more protection from foreign invaders that could potentially wipe out their population, a parliamentary report said on Tuesday.

A bee-keeper holds a comb of honey bees at Huangyuan county in northwest China's Qinghai province July 7, 2007. REUTERS/Simon Zo

Australia is a major supplier of queen and hive bees to North America, Japan and the Middle East, cashing in on its standing as the only country not to suffer from a deadly bee mite known as the varroa destructor.

But the varroa mite has been found in bees in neighboring Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, raising new fears it could soon breach Australian borders.

“Scientists who have studied the progress of this pest believe that it is only a matter of time before it arrives in Australia and devastates the honey bee population,” the report said, urging the government to tighten border and quarantine controls.

“It might be an exaggeration to state ‘no bees, no food’, but the food security and economic welfare of the entire community depend to a considerable degree on the humble honey bee.”

The mite has hit hives around the world with devastating effects on pollination industries, and has been linked to the mystery Colony Collapse Disorder across North America.

Australian Parliament’s primary industries committee found bees add up to A$6 billion ($5.7 billion) a year to the value of agriculture and horticulture, and were crucial for 35 key crops as well as stock feeds such as clover.

“Once you’ve got varroa, it would lead to the collapse of the bee industry. It would simply wipe out bee colonies,” bee keeper Lindsay Bourke told Reuters.

“A third of everything we eat has to be pollinated or relies on pollination. You won’t eat a decent steak without bees.”

Australia currently exports disease-free bees, particularly to the United States where they are used to help pollinate the California almond industry.

Exporter Paula Dewar, who sends about 8,000 queen bees a year to Canada, the United States and Japan for up to $22 a bee, said Australian apiarists were worried about imported bee disease.

“We are known for our good breeding stock, varieties and healthy bees,” Dewar said.

Australia currently has a “sentinel” bee program where hives are set up at key ports so authorities can spot any new disease.

The report urged the government to also set up new bait hives around the ports to attract bees arriving by ship and to stop them from joining domestic hives.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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