Questions have been asked by apiarists in NSW as to why containment continues to be the method of response to the Varroa mite incursion, leading to the eradication of more than 28,000 hives since the mite was first detected in June 2022.
While containment will still be the approach, the response has pivoted away from straight eradication for any hives within the 10 kilometre red zone to a risk-based assessment in the hope of minimising the impact on the already hard hit bee industry.
The shift in the response comes directly from the NSW Department of Primary Industries getting a large number of traces out of the Kempsey area.
Continued successful traceability has provided the DPI with exactly when infected hives have moved, how long they have been there, where the hives have travelled, and what the level of Varroa mite infestation is.
This level of traceability allows NSW DPI epidemiologists to look at what the risk of a mite moving outside of three kilometres, outside of six kilometres, or outside of 10km is, allowing for an individual risk assessment rather than just drawing a 10km eradication zone around it.
"What we've been doing for some time is constantly assessing the situation of where we are finding new infected hives, who they are connected to and how they got there," said NSW Department of Primary Industries deputy incident controller Dr Shannon Mulholland.
"What we have is a really important body of information that we've generated during the course of the 14 months of the response.
"We're now able to apply that intelligence to a more detailed risk-based approach. And it's a way of still containing the threat and suppressing further spread of Varroa, but it's also trying to minimise the impact on the beekeeping industry."
Dr Mulholland said when the incursion first occurred, applying the 10km eradication and 25km surveillance zones was important for a number of reasons.
"When the response first kicked off, we didn't have a clear incursion date, so we didn't know how long it had been there," she said.
"We found a large number of infested premises in the Hunter and Central Coast in particular, and high mite loads as well.
"Those factors combined to be a high risk scenario and we needed to set those eradication and surveillance zones at their maximum limit to be effective.
"Setting them too small just simply wouldn't work and if we set them too big, then it would have a much greater impact on the industry.
"What we're finding as of late is a number of new infested premises that have been detected across the state are a result of recent movements.
"We know where they came from, they have been there for a short period, and the mite loads for most of them were quite small.
"That has a very different risk profile to the Hunter and Central Coast, and applying those full 10km and 25km zones seemed excessive to balance that level of risk."
Kempsey continues to have the 10km eradication and 25km surveillance zones due to the DPI being unsure of when the first mite got there and the close proximity detections to each other.
A change in the response to self-management could cost the industry $5.2 billion across a 30-year period, according to research done by ABARES and Dr Mulholland said a transition to self-management would not be a straight forward move.
"If we do transition to management, then Varroa mite becomes established in Australia and it becomes a national problem that the beekeeping and pollination industries then have to live with," she said.
"The issue I am concerned about right now is if we have people calling for transition to management, let's just close the doors today and walk away. That means that beekeepers need to manage it from tomorrow.
"We don't have those mechanisms in place yet to be able to do that. It's going to see additional costs for beekeepers because they are going to have to apply a treatment to their hives.
"Self-management also means more managed hives are needed to pollinate crops because there will no longer be the additional benefit of large numbers of wild European honeybees."
Commercial beekeepers affected by the continuing spread of the invasive Varroa mite can access $1500 in financial assistance through bush charity Rural Aid which has already provided more than $500,000 to beekeepers since 2015 and is ready to again provide a "hand up" to producers.
"Like everyone involved in agriculture, Rural Aid is enormously concerned for our beekeepers and our littlest livestock," said chief executive officer John Warlters.
"Rural Aid is supporting beekeepers with financial assistance and rural counsellors on standby to provide emotional support. We have experienced an increase in calls from distressed beekeepers who are understandably upset that their livelihoods are in jeopardy."
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