Exotic bee species are a threat to the healthy populations of European honey bees we have in Australia. If some species of exotic bees or diseased bees were to become established, current bee-dependent industries would be vastly affected. Bees don’t just provide honey in Australia — they also pollinate many of our crops. Some species that could be a threat are Asian, giant, dwarf, Cape, African and Africanised honey bees.
The importance of honey bees to our horticulture and agricultural industries is critical for the 35 Australian industries that rely on honeybee pollination for most of their production. For example, the Australian apple and pear industry was worth $457 million in 2013-14 and is reliant on honeybee pollination for production.
Everyone needs to keep an eye out for exotic bees. Many exotic bees are hard to tell from European honey bees and they may also be carrying pests such as internal and external mites, so any evidence of bees entering Australia should be treated as a biosecurity risk.
Bees can arrive in imported goods, including vehicles and machinery, and the conveyances and containers they come in. There may be evidence of individual bees, whole swarms, or hives.
Asian honey bees (Apis cerana) originated in Indonesia, and are now established in northern Queensland around Cairns. They are smaller and less hairy than European honey bees, and their black and yellow stripes are more pronounced. They are a natural host for varroa mites, which may destroy European honey bee colonies. They are also a vector for other bee diseases and could compete with European honey bees for resources, threatening their populations. Asian honey bees are hard to manage for both honey production and pollination, and are not effective alternatives to the European honeybee.
Giant honey bees (Apis dorsata) are very large, up to 2cm long. They originated in South East Asia, and prefer tropical climates. They present a major risk to bees in Australia because they can carry parasitic mites, which could cause colony decline and death in European honey bees.
Dwarf honey bees (Apis florea) are smaller than European honey bees, and have distinctive red-brown, white and black bands on the abdomen. Their nests consist of a single comb, usually less than 25cm across. They originated in the Middle East and Africa. They can rob honey from the hives of European honey bees, as well as carry various species of damaging mites.
Cape honey bees (Apis mellifera capensis) are found only in South Africa, are generally darker in colour and slightly smaller than European honey bees, although they look nearly identical. However, they have very different behaviour, swarming more often than European honey bees and store less honey. Cape honey bees are also a threat because their unique reproduction allows them to colonise the hives of other bee species, replacing the original queen.
African honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) originate from sub-Saharan Africa, are slightly smaller than European honey bees, but otherwise are not easy to distinguish. Their behaviour is quite different: they are very defensive of their nests, and hundreds of bees may attack an intruder at once, including large mammals and humans. They swarm often, up to 10 times per year, and will build nests in much smaller spaces than European honey bees. They compete for resources with European honey bees, and are harder to manage.
Africanised honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata hybrids) are hybrids of any European honey bee subspecies and African honey bees, hence the term ‘Africanised’. They originated in South and Central America, after the introduction of African honey bees to Brazil in the 1950s. They have now reached as far north as the southern states of the USA. They are very difficult to distinguish from European honey bees, but like African honey bees they are much more aggressive. Hybridisation is a threat because a beekeeper’s stock may be replaced over numerous bee generations, leaving a more aggressive and harder to manage population.
If you work around imported goods you need to look for swarms of bees or bees and their hives attached to:
- shipping containers
- conveyances (vehicles, machinery and infrastructure components).
Beekeepers and home gardeners
All beekeepers, from commercial operators, backyard enthusiasts, to people starting up their first hives, form part of the honey bee industry. Each and every beekeeper has a role to play in protecting honey bees from exotic pests.
Be vigilant about bees on your property. Make sure you source your stock, such as new queens, from trusted sources, preferably certified. Keep good records of all apiary inputs.
Make sure that vehicles and equipment entering and leaving your property aren’t inadvertently transporting bees or hives.
Monitor hives frequently, keeping an eye out for exotic invaders. Constant vigilance is essential for early detection of pest honey bees.
BeeAware has resources to help you manage your hives.
Any detections of exotic bees must be reported to the authorities.
If you receive or work around goods imported from overseas, including mail, you need to be vigilant to exotic bees and other exotic pests. If you see an unusual pest, secure the goods to limit the movement of the pest and immediately report it to the Department of Agriculture and Water Resource’s SEE. SECURE. REPORT. Hotline on 1800 798 636 or by using the online form.
If you see bees that you don’t think are European honey bees, or anything unusual, report it to the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline on 1800 084 881. This will put you in touch with the department of primary industries or agriculture in your state or territory.
When reporting your concern, you will be given advice on handling the specimen and what to do next until an officer can investigate.