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Australia's Native Bees Are In Trouble

The world's bee populations are in decline and Australia is no exception. But Australia's story isn't about the honey bee -- our native bees are the ones in trouble.

The world's honey bees have been in steep decline for over a decade, with extraordinary losses in population witnessed across the globe resulting in a 30 percent loss of some honey bee colonies every year.

Beekeepers across the U.S. and Europe have reported these mass bee deaths, known as 'colony collapse' since 2006 and in the absence of any singular explanation, the disturbing decline was dubbed 'Colony Collapse Disorder' or CCD.

Teddybear bee (Amegilla sp.), on flower. Australia. Source: Getty.

This was a shocking and frightening prospect for beekeepers -- suddenly they could lose entire populations of adult working bees almost overnight.

The concern for the welfare of honey bee populations is well-founded -- one out of every three bites taken by humans worldwide depends on the pollinators.

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Bees are responsible for $30 billion per year in crops and without them, up to 50 percent of our produce would fail to exist.

CCD is currently believed to be the result of a combination of factors including widespread use of pesticides and fungicides, decline in flower numbers, and viral pathogens.

IMAGE: Getty

However, the Varroa mite (known by the rather dramatic scientific name Varroa destructor)  has been pinpointed as the primary source of bee deaths because it's the vector for the deadly Deformed Wing Virus.

It is believed that European honeybees picked up the mites from Asian honey bees, potentially by way of the commercial exchange of queens.

Certain pesticides have also been linked to bee deaths and there has been a global movement to ban the use of neonicotinoid compounds, which have been shown to cause harm to bees in laboratory tests.

Photo: Getty.

The EU banned the use of neonicotinoids in all agricultural settings except permanent greenhouses in 2013 and Australian household hardware chain Bunnings stopped selling the Condifor pesticide brand at the end of 2018, citing concern for the welfare of bees.

What is happening with Australia's bees? 

The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority have declined to follow the EU's lead by banning these pesticides because, well, Australia's honey bees are actually doing okay.

Doctor Katja Hogendoorn, a research associate from the University of Adelaide told 10 daily that Australia's honey bee populations are relatively stable and the Varroa mite that causes Deformed Wing Virus has never been found in Australia.

Native blue-banded bee. Source: Getty.

The greatest threat to Australian honey bees has been American Foulbrood, which Hogendoorn described as a "horrible disease where the larvae turn to slime".

Foulbrood is caused by a bacteria and keepers need to monitor regularly against this persistent threat.

Hogendoorn said that hobbyist beekeepers are often not equipped to manage this issue and despite their good intentions, she does not recommend that amateurs buy and try to maintain hives.

The Australian bees that are really in trouble. 

Native bee populations have fallen by an estimated 40 to 50 percent globally, according to Hogendoorn and she said that there is every indication the same trend is happening in Australia.

"We've got 1700 native bee species, we haven't even described them all yet. They're solitary and not introduced to Australia and they're most definitely in decline," she said.

Teddy-bear bee. Source: Getty.

Loss of flowers in city environments, competition with agricultural land, and pesticide use have all contributed to the loss of Australian bees -- and this rapid loss is a huge concern for natural biodiversity.

Native bees maintain native plant species and they're a fundamental part of the ecosystem.

Hogendoorn and her colleagues are now lobbying farmers to alter the way they care for the landscape and include native vegetation to feed native bees.

"They are really interested, they can see the damage around them and they have this sense of being stewards of the landscape," she said.

IMAGE: Getty

"They can see that situation where you only have crops, no native plants, the concept of that has really changed a lot of farmers want to put native vegetation back."

Hogendoorn suggests that rather than buying beehives, concerned citizens should simply start planting native vegetation for these species.

Pollen-heavy native plants are the best option for bee-friendly gardening and if you do not have access to a garden, Hogendoorn recommends getting in touch with local councils to ask them to plant them instead.

"I think a little bit of worry is good, we're losing species very very fast...but use that worry in a positive way to get change happening," Hogendoorn said.

Contact the author escott@networkten.com.au