Apiarists from around the country have descended on Canberra this week to fight the government’s decision to halt its funding of the eradication of the Asian honey bee. Beekeepers are concerned that Apis cerana will not only destroy the bee and honey industry, but that it will also affect the food processing industry, which relies on the pollination of bees.

The campaign — “Food security needs bee security” — was sparked after the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestries (DAFF) decided to wind up its $3 million program to eradicate the bee at the end of this month. DAFF officials said that the program had ended because eradication of the Asian bee wasn’t feasible.

Jodie Goldsworthy, director of Beechworth Honey and one of the beekeepers behind the campaign, says that the public awareness campaign and meeting with DAFF Minister Joe Ludwig had been a huge success.

“I think it’s fair to say that the minister is now aware that the information that was used to form this decision was perhaps lacking,” she told Crikey. “We’re very hopeful that with a review of the correct science as put forward by the CSIRO that he will change his mind.”

Efforts were first made to destroy the bee — which is a potential carrier of the Varroa destructor mite — after it was discovered in the mast of a yacht in Cairns in 2007. The mite has devastated European honey bee populations in the United States and New Zealand and has the potential to do the same in Australia.

Last week, a senate estimates hearing was told that the program — which was partly funded by state and federal government and the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council — would be dumped after bees were found five kilometres outside a 50-kilometre control zone in northern Queensland.

Ludwig says the decision to halt eradication did not mean control activities of the bee would cease. Biosecurity government officials were meeting with industry representatives shortly to consider further activities to suppress the bee, he said.

“The Asian Honey Bee National Management Group, which includes industry representatives, formed the view that eradication is no longer feasible,” he told Crikey. “I met representatives of the honey bee industry this week and encouraged them to work with federal and state governments on options for the future management of this pest.”

Industry estimates the value of annual production of honey and associated bee products at about $80 million per year. But according to a parliamentary report entitled More Than Honey, the value of bees is much higher than that. It is estimated that $4 billion-$6 billion worth of agricultural production relies on the pollination efforts of the humble honey bee.

Goldsworthy says that future of agriculture and food security in Australia relies on the health of the bee industry.

“To have the support of Australian Food & Grocery Council and the National Farmers’ Federation in the room today shows that there is support and sympathy for this campaign,” she said. “Industry is saying that this is in the national interest and needs to be addressed on a national level.”

Funding of eradication has also been identified as an issue. According to DAFF, other industries reliant on bees were approached to be involved in the management of the response but declined to contribute resources. Godlsworthy rejects the idea that the beekeeping industry should be responsible for lobbying food industry groups to contribute.

“It is an unrealistic expectation for a small group of beekeepers to lobby other food producers to actually to do this, this is about the national interest and developing a national food plan,” she said.

Greens Senator Christine Milne is backing the beekeepers. She says a full cost-benefit analysis of the impact on agriculture, the environment and the honey industry was needed before a decision to halt eradication is made.

“Whilst there is any possibility that we can eradicate this bee, the Gillard government must intervene to support the Queensland government with the resources necessary to do so,” she said. “The Asian honey bee could become the cane toad of the insect world. It is not only our honey supply, our apiarists and our natural environment that will suffer.”

Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Food Security John Cobb has also called on the federal government to fund the fight against the Asian bee outbreak.

“If we had put in an eradication program for rabbits or the cane toad when it was this small an area we would have saved billions in lost production and ecological biodiversity,” he said. “The question is not what it will cost to eradicate the Asian bee; it is how much it will cost Australia if we do not eradicate this pest.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey