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Invasion of the Asian honey bee

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.

Flowers of the snow gum. Flickr photo by John Tann.

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 arrival

Bark of the ribbon gum. Photo by plantthis.com.au.
The 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.

Apis cerana. Wikimedia Commons photo by Azman.

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.

Maggie
HoneyBeeSuite

Invasion of Apis cerana could disrupt Australia’s honey industry. Photo by Maggie.

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

Comments

Royston
Reply

Is there really a chance of cerana/mellifera crosses? I understood that the two coexisted in many parts of Southern Asia, without any such problems. One difficulty could be that non-mellifera honey can’t be classified as honey for importation into the EU.

Rich
Reply

Hey Maggie,

You write well, but can you tell us where you got the British influence? We are wrong in assuming that you spent all your time in the U.S. as a child with American parents, aren’t we?

BTW, I agree with Phillip’s comment to your first guest post. Your adventure has many of us thinking about what we did when young, and worse, what we should have done. But the great lesson is that there is no reason to ever stop living with excitement, curiosity and new influences. But come on, jealousy as noted by Phillip is more to the point.

Rich

Sam
Reply

I find this amusing. I read somewhere (official actually) that the invasive nasty Asian honey bee was being hunted because of a few reasons some of which were that it posed a threat to people because of getting stung, another was that they carry diseases. That same Asian bee is going extinct in Japan because beekeepers are using mellifera for honey, and mellifera can out forage cerana. I think it is defiantly a money thing and not so much and “invasive species” thing.

Maggie
Reply

Sam: It’s tough to say how ‘money’ it is and how ‘invasive species’ it is. I ran into similar issues in China where mellifera has been introduced for honey production purposes . . . maybe at the expense of cerana. Not sure. I wrote a little bit about my experience with this in Asia (http://smallwrld.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/european-bees-colonize-planet-china/), but the issue needs much more exploring.

Maggie
Reply

Royston: from what I can tell, there have been no instances of a mellifera-cerana cross. In fact, several studies say that a hybridization is anatomically impossible. And you’re right, the species do coexist in parts of Asia. So perhaps hybridization is a false (Africanized-inspired?) fear, and the only way cerana could ‘contaminate’ mellifera stocks is by robbing and replacing their colonies. If this were to occur, beekeepers would have a hard time guaranteeing the content of their export.

Rich: Actually, I spent all my time in the U.S. as a child with American parents. However, I did visit the U.K. for a few weeks as a kid, and I have read all 7 Harry Potter books.

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