Genetic research and a coordinated response could be crucial to building resilience as the Australian honey bee industry learns to live with Varroa mite.
Australia was the last major honey producing country free of the parasite, until eradication efforts were abandoned in September after 15 months.
Most of Newcastle and the NSW Hunter Valley, as well as parts of the state's North Coast, are now included in a management zone, with the understanding the mite is likely to spread across the state, and eventually across the country.
But at Tocal, just outside Newcastle, researchers and breeders have spent the past four years trying to make Australia's bee populations stronger and healthier.
The National Honeybee Genetic Improvement Program, or "Plan Bee", was launched in 2019, with the aim of improving Australia's honey bee stocks using genetic selection.
While the main research apiary is hosted at Tocal, the project draws on breeder data from across Australia, with a presence in all states and territories except the Northern Territory.
Lead researcher Dr Nadine Chapman said the program brings together all the information they can collect on colonies.
"That's what beekeepers have been doing for centuries, going 'oh, that's a good one, I'll use that one'," Dr Chapman said.
"But there's all this other information that we could use, such as which queens are sisters, how are they related to each other."
By comparing colony performance and environment with pedigree information and genetic testing, researchers can more quickly select for and maintain valuable traits in the population.
Sectors such as cattle and dairy have seen the benefits of modern breeding techniques for decades, but beekeepers have stuck to traditional, tried and true methods.
According to Dr Chapman, the industry hasn't had the finances to explore breeding programs without government support, despite the economic footprint of pollination.
"In a program in Germany and surrounding countries, they were making 0.11 per cent improvement in honey production per year, using the old methods," Dr Chapman said.
"Once they've implemented these newer methods, they're making 1.67pc [improvement], more than 10 times as much.
"Over time, that makes a huge difference to the viability of industry."
The program also works with individual bee breeders, who can select their own stock based on different traits or whether they're selling to the commercial or recreational market.
Australian Honey Bee Industry Council chief executive officer Danny Le Feuvre said the project has raised the profile of breeding in Australia.
"It's achieved some great gains in the genetic improvement space," Mr Le Feuvre said.
"But it's also - and probably more important than the genetic gains - it's started to work on a platform of being able to evaluate and standardise the queen breeding programs in the country."
When the Tocal region found itself in a Varroa eradication zone in August 2022, hundreds of Plan Bee's colonies had to be destroyed.
A small number of queens were saved and rehomed to another site in NSW under strict biosecurity protocols, but the loss of data and genetic diversity has been a setback.
As Australia transitions to management of Varroa mite, there's hope breeding and genetic research will be part of the picture.
Dr Chapman said Varroa mite would eventually become resistant if beekeepers relied on synthetic chemicals, such as in the United States.
"Losing 50pc of your colonies like the US, in a year, that's just not sustainable," Dr Chapman said.
"Who wants to work in a business where they lose half of their stock every year? Imagine if Coles or Woolworths, half of the stock on their shelves got shoplifted? That would just not be viable.
"If we import bees that have already been selected for resistance for 20 years or something, then that would obviously save us a lot of time.
"But even if we did import, we would still need a breeding program, because you need that selective pressure to keep those traits in your population or they could just lose it."
Despite robust biosecurity protocols, importation also runs the risk of introducing other issues, such as deformed wing virus.
Mr Le Feuvre said the risk is never zero, and we're better off looking in our own backyard first, before looking overseas.
"The Australian population doesn't have that resistance because we haven't looked," Mr Le Feuvre said.
"We haven't had Varroa to provide that selection pressure. There's a real opportunity to screen our existing stock - which is happening - to find that genetic resistance in our own soils.
"Many experts from overseas tell me that we are more than likely to have Varroa resistance within our existing apiaries - we just need to have the systems and the breeding capabilities to be able to assess, select and maintain that genetics."
Building Varroa resistance will take time and Plan Bee is currently scheduled to wrap up in April next year.
It is hoped the project will receive funding as part of a federal grant application by the Pollination Security Cooperative Research Centre, but otherwise will need a lifeline from the NSW government.
"I would love to see a program that goes for at least 10 years," Dr Chapman said.
"A three-year program is really great to get you started, you can go in and you can build these systems, you can make a little bit of change in a community.
"Beekeepers are worried that they're going to invest all of this time collecting all this data, and then you're going to disappear in three years. They want to have certainty that if they invest this time and energy into doing this, that it's going to continue to help their business for a long time."
The AHBIC is now lobbying for a capacity and capability report on the queen breeding sector, to help make recommendations about how to drive the sector forward, with or without Plan Bee.
Mr Le Feuvre said the industry would push to see the project extended.
"We don't have huge capacity. We have a number of private organisations doing queen breeding, but no coordinated national approach at this stage," Mr Le Feuvre said.
"The Plan Bee project could definitely be that nationally coordinated place to really drive genetic gains in the Australian honey bee industry.
"As an industry we need to look at our queen breeding sector and look at what is the best way we can then improve that sector and unite it and move it forward, to be able to provide a really robust breeding program that's sustainable and has sustainable funding."
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