Genetic bee research paves the way to sweeten imports plan

Beekeepers are a step closer to protecting themselves from the devastating Varroa mite, with a new test likely to allow imports of honey bee semen from resistant breeding stock without putting the industry at risk from another pest – Africanised bees.

Africanised bees are hybrids of European honey bees and A. m. capensis from Africa that are highly aggressive, unsuitable for beekeeping, and extremely invasive.

The development of a genetic test to differentiate Africanised bees from non-Africanised bees could allow imports of honey bee semen from countries that have desirable stock, but also have Africanised bees.

The research has been carried out by Dr. Nadine Chapman and Prof Ben Oldroyd from the University of Sydney as part of the Honey Bee and Pollination Program, a partnership between the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), Horticulture Innovation Australia and the Australian Government.

Chair of the Program’s Advisory Panel, Michael Hornitzky, said honey bee breeders in Australia have a keen interest in importing strains of honey bees bred for resistance to diseases, as well as other types of genetically improved stock.

“Australia is currently home to the only significant population of Varroa-free European honey bees in the world but we cannot be complacent as our bees have little resistance to this mite,” Dr Hornitzky said.

“While we’ve been able to import queen bees from countries without Africanised bees, this will allow semen to be tested and brought in from other countries without the risk of importing Africanised bees as well as Varroa which is not transmitted through semen.”

Dr Hornitzky said the research is of even greater importance in the wake of a species of Varroa mite being found on Asian Honey Bees in Townsville, North Queensland.

“Thankfully the species was not the kind of mite that could readily transfer to the European honey bees that beekeepers have in hives, and the bees and mites have all been destroyed,” he said.

“The opportunity to import more strains of bees that have been bred for resistance to the Varroa mite would offer a safeguard for the future of not only our industry, but also the broader agriculture sector that relies so heavily on a healthy honey bee population,” he said.

Dr Hornitzky said the Africanised honey bee test offers exciting possibilities in regards to the draft policy review for the importation of honey bee semen currently being considered by policy makers.

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