Ticking packages

Doug Sommerville
Bee technical specialist, Dr Doug Somerville, shows an export package.

He says it is obvious bees are at war with their environment, under a lot of stress from nutrition deficiencies, moving colonies, management practices, from parasitic mites including Varroa and tracheal, pesticides used within the hive and on the agricultural crops bees forage, plus a range of pathogens including bacteria, fungi, viruses and microspora.

Australia's leading bee experts have rejected an inference in a scientific paper that the devastating Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in the US may have originated from Australian package bees.

Strong international opinion, recently expressed at a recent Melbourne conference, supports their rejection.

"One comment sums up the CCD issue - if you ask 10 beekeepers or researchers what causes it, you will get 11 opinions," NSW Department of Primary Industries bee authority Dr Doug Somerville said.

"Even with limited currently available data, a significant group of American beekeepers believe Australia may have caused their CCD.

"The culprit, if you believe the paper in Science Express, is linked to Israeli acute paralysis virus, although this conclusion came in for some very strong criticism from many highly respected scientists at the Melbourne Apimondia conference CCD workshop."

"Strong international scientific opinion supports the idea that CCD is caused by more than one factor and more than likely a build up of negative factors.

"Each in their own right may not cause it, but when combined cause CCD."

CSIRO bee pathologist Denis Anderson, an acknowledged world expert based in Canberra, said many viruses exist in bees without any apparent impact and that only when there are other elements at play, do they become apparent.

Science Express published the article, A Metagenomic survey of microbes in honey bee colony collapse disorder, in September.

Science Express provides electronic publication of selected Science papers in advance of print.

Dr Somerville said the paper "says that CCD started in 2004, whereas Australian packages first arrived in 2005".

"The symptoms could also be attributed to Nosema disease," he said.

The focus of the article is on the range of microbes in a collection of samples.

Israeli acute paralysis virus was said to be a good indicator of CCD although only 25 of the 30 samples of bees analysed were positive; whereas of the 30 bee samples said to have CCD, all 30 had Nosema ceranae.

Dr Somerville points out Australian packages have also been transported to many countries for decades without any reports of CCD symptoms as a result.

Export package bees - bulk bees in separate small cages - contain individual queens, packaged with thousands of young adult bees, enough to keep the queens alive during the journey, to replace the old queens in colonies at their destination.

Lucrative for the small handful of Australian beekeepers who have ventured into the business, the exportations have supplemented the California almond industry, where bees had been decimated in recent seasons by Varroa mite.

Further large losses were reported in the US earlier this year at the end of winter, Dr Somerville said.More information

A survey by American apiary inspectors found that an estimated 30 per cent of all colonies died over the winter of 2006-07.

"Normally a die off of 17pc can be expected, although I would regard this as a very high figure under Australian circumstances, so between 10 and 13pc of deaths were above normal," he said.

"The circumstances created a lot of media attention and speculation.

"What has not been established, even with the vast number of scientific minds on the job, is a cause and effect."

According to Dr Somerville, a number of beekeeping experts worldwide are now suggesting that CCD has been present for many years, as an accumulation of factors which eventually become too great for a colony to resist and it dies.