In her second installment about beekeeping in Australia’s Outback, Maggie tells about scouting the eucalypt bloom and the threat of the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana.
Martha takes me out to scout the bloom a couple of times. It’s basically a tree road trip. We’re sizing up snow gum, blue gum, stringy bark, red gum, and ribbon gum that wears its loose bark like a boa. We observe that 70% of the grey box are 80% budded. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but Martha is pleased by the news. The car ride is a six-hour excursion, and in between tree trips Martha tells me about the impending invasion of Apis cerana.
Martha has served the beekeeping industry in several capacities, holding executive office in various apiary associations, even lobbying Parliament in Melbourne. She is a well-connected leader in a tight-knit industry, and so she recognizes emerging threats, and she understands their implications. Cerana is a problem, she explains.
The first arrivalThe first cerana swarm to invade Australia was discovered in the mast of a yacht in Brisbane in 1997/1998. It was captured before it could spread. Ten years later, cerana established in Cairns where five hundred colonies and swarms have since been destroyed, but there is little hope of eradicating the invader.
Cerana has been known to swarm up to 10 km every 2-3 weeks, and it establishes small colonies that are difficult to spot. Currently, the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) coordinates a containment program in Cairns where volunteers beeline from bait stations, monitor rainbow bird and bat feces for evidence of bees, and maintain a 100 km x 30 km containment zone. However, funds are too short for full-scale eradication, and commercial beekeepers anticipate its inevitable spread.
A threat to honey bee exports
The invasion of Apis cerana poses several difficulties for Australia, not least of which is its alarming tendency to nest in mailboxes. According to the beekeepers I interviewed, cerana is aggressive toward native bees and other honey bee species. It recently robbed out 2,000 managed mellifera hives in the Solomon Islands. Cerana is also considered to be a poor pollinator for human purposes. Furthermore, a cerana-mellifera cross might endanger Australian export of packages and queens.
Because Australia’s bee season coincides with the California almond bloom, Australia sends loads of bees to the U.S. every January and February. The invasion of cerana endangers this partnership because California cannot import bees that might have hybridized with an invasive species.
The invasive Asian bees in Australia are of Indonesian origin, though they came over from New Guinea. Actually, they were brought to New Guinea when authorities were trying to make good for displaced native populations, but that’s another story.
This invasion may sound like another case of globalization run disastrous, but in the scheme of things, the situation could be much worse. Let’s keep this in perspective: the cerana invasion is inconvenient by our standards because it poses a threat to the livelihoods supported by mellifera—a well-established but (let’s not forget) equally invasive species, introduced to Australia in the 1820s.
Most importantly, the parent swarm that established in Cairns did not bring Varroa with it, so Australia remains a sort of beekeeping oasis, where big, healthy bees still bubble out of boxes with a rigor that continues to impress my American eyes.
For more information, check out this recent report conducted by the Asian Honey Bee Program in Cairns: http://asianhoneybee.net.au/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/AHB-Behavioural-analysis-report.pdf