Interception at likely entry points into Australia was identified as the key method of dealing with the intrusion of bee pests. This interception at ports is considered the first line of defence. The National Bee Pest Surveillance Program (NBPSP), which operates at key entry points around Australia, was established to provide risk-based early warning for the entry of bee pests and pest bees.
Discussion at the roundtable focused on the adequacy of interception and response methods.
National Bee Pest Surveillance Program
The Plant Health Australia (PHA) submission to the inquiry, provided on request after the roundtable, outlined the frontline defence against potential incursions of bee pests, as operated by the NBPSP.
The submission explained that seven methodologies are required to provide adequate coverage against the various exotic threats to the honey bee industry. Those methodologies are:
… standard catchboxes, remote surveillance catchboxes, sentinel hives, floral mapping and sweep netting, surveillance for Asian honey bees, surveillance for viruses and surveillance for Asian hornet.
The submission also explained that a unified approach is required for the program as no single methodology can provide adequate coverage for all pests.
The catchbox program
A sentinel hive is a hive of European honey bees of a known health status that are maintained at ports believed to be of high risk throughout Australia. These hives are tested every six weeks for external and internal mites.
Standard catchboxes positioned in high risk port areas provide a means of early detection of exotic bee species. Inadvertently imported swarms of bees may be picked up using catchboxes and can subsequently be sampled for exotic mites on a regular basis.
A remote surveillance catchbox is an empty hive that can detect when honey bees are present in the hive using a mobile phone camera and sensors. The phone captures an image at frequent intervals and performs image analysis to determine the presence of a swarm. The phone can upload a daily image or if image analysis detects activity. Power to the phone is provided by a solar panel and batteries in the catchbox lid. An electronic door on the catchbox entry can be triggered remotely to close and open the hive door. Remote surveillance catchboxes are positioned in locations that are not easily and frequently accessible, but are of high risk concern for exotic threats.
Effectiveness of sentinel hives and catchboxes
Lindsay Bourke, the Chairman of AHBIC, suggested that sentinel hives are too far from ports, and if a swarm of affected bees is discovered in a sentinel hive that it will be too late, V. destructor will be established and it will be extremely difficult to remove:
We may well be not doing enough with our surveillance at ports. We do the best we can. Sentinel hives is a wonderful program because it is a national program, but you cannot put the sentinel hives where you should have them … some of them are located up to three kilometres away from the port. That is far too late. We do test them every two months; it is very good. We test to see if we have Varroa in there. But, once we find them, that Varroa will have infected all the amateur hives and everything else that is within the vicinity of that port.
Mr Bourke further suggested that more needs to be done concerning identifying and capturing bees when they first arrive at ports, utilising many more catchboxes:
We can put [remote catchboxes] where we want them. Waterside workers have even had their lunch on one of them! You can put them in the right position where they should be, and you can put many of them in. CSIRO suggested that we need 10 at larger ports and five at smaller ports. That is about 800 that are needed at a cost of about $1,000 to put together. We should have a lot more of those. We are fiddling. We are not doing enough.
The Australian interception and surveillance program has been informed by the New Zealand experience which did not contain V. destructor. The subsequent establishment of V. destructor throughout new Zealand increased the risk of its passage to Australia.
New Zealand has had V. destructor present since 2000, where it became established in the North Island.
Varroa was found in Nelson in the South Island in June 2006, at which time a government decision was made to not attempt eradication. This was based on the estimated cost of NZ$8-9 million and the strong probability that a reinvasion from the North Island would most likely occur sooner rather than later. The estimated success of an eradication of mites from the South Island was 80-85 per cent.
While the prevalence of Varroa in New Zealand has increased the risk of intrusion into Australia, it has also provided opportunities to discuss interception methods.
In March 2007, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation supported a study group of nine Australian beekeepers and scientists that travelled through New Zealand, discussing beekeeping issues with a range of beekeepers and scientists in the North Island. The group gathered information on Varroa and other topics of importance to beekeepers in Australia. The group was successful in identifying key points that should be carefully considered by the Australian beekeeping industry, in order to prepare itself for the arrival of Varroa.
Trevor Weatherhead, the Executive Director of AHBIC, discussed the importance of sentinel hives in the identification of bee pests in North Queensland in 2016, comparing that to the New Zealand experience with Varroa:
I believe the situation in North Queensland was that they picked them up fairly early there. They checked every six weeks. I think that, if we found Varroa in some of those, we would still stand a chance to eradicate the mite, because we would pick it up very early. We have only got to find one mite. In the New Zealand situation, they had it for about two years before they even picked it up. They never knew what they were looking at. In our case we are doing active surveillance of these hives. We have only got to pick up one mite to know that they are there and go into it straight away.
Mr Bourke of AHBIC reiterated the importance of port surveillance, particularly now that Australia has direct shipping from New Zealand, and emphasised AHBIC’s concern that the mite will arrive in Australia undetected.
Mr Greg Fraser, Chief Executive Officer of PHA, also emphasised the fact that the Australian Government is going to make a concerted and sustained effort to make sure that the V. destructor does not come here from New Zealand:
We are doing a lot of work in New Zealand to understand what lessons we can learn and what we have learned. We have seen what has happened there. I think expanding the program is an element of all the things you do to try and get yourself prepared for a potential incident. We give ourselves the best chance we possibly can of picking it up as soon as we can if it gets here, containing it and reducing the speed at which it spreads.
The initial program
Recognising the increased risk of passage of Varroa to Australia, and its potential economic impact, the NBPSP is subject to periodic review and redesign to ensure it is appropriately responsive and targeted. The PHA submission to the inquiry outlined the recent NBPSP Review and Redesign.
Model 1 was the program initiated in 2013 and superseded by Model 2 in December 2016. The original program, at an annual cost of $669 192, allowed for:
20 remote catchboxes; and
11 floral sweeping locations.
Model 2 of the NBPSP Review and Redesign, which will cover the period from December 2016 until 2021, at an annual cost of $920 218, allows for:
260 Asian honeybee catchboxes; and
15 floral sweeping locations.
The Asian honey bee catchboxes are new to the program. Also of note is that the number of ports has been reduced by seven, however, the number of high-risk ports has increased by one.
Mr Fraser explained that the program has been expanded and refunded significantly, to establish more sentinel hives and cover more ports.
PHA, in its submission, noted that Model 2 of the program covers the 14 high-risk ports that account for 95 per cent of the total import volume of trade into Australia.
Mr Fraser emphasised the importance of collaboration between industry and government:
We are trying to do more with the resources we have. There has been great support from industry. AHBIC have changed a number of things around their levies over the last couple of years, which has given the industry a lot of ability to engage in conversations with RDCs and governments about improving those surveillance programs.
The PHA submission explained that, in response to the program review, a greater focus would be on catchbox location, and the potential for the use of lures and baits will be considered to improve their effectiveness. The submission also suggested that several technology improvements could be made to remote catchboxes in the next phase of the program, again, considering location and potential for lures and baits to optimise effectiveness.
Mr Fraser reiterated that the key issue is to make sure that the catchboxes are in place and checked on a regular basis, with captured data going into the AUSPestCheck database.
Mr Fraser discussed the wider range of activities being conducted and coordinated under the program:
There is a whole range of activity going on at the moment, let alone simulation exercises, practising, so on and so forth, and contingency planning. With the assistance of AHBIC, again, we are establishing bee biosecurity officers in every state in partnership with the state governments … The programs that we are running are the sentinel, the surveillance program and the bee biosecurity program. That is about a $10 million investment over the next few years, and that is about having all those people I talked about before—the RDCs, the industries, the governments—involved in trying to improve not only the chances of picking up Varroa at the border or just after the border but also training around skills for beekeepers so that if something does come in they know what to do.
Mr Fraser was confident that the program would be successful in identifying and controlling Varroa at the border:
We have got a pretty fair chance of being successful if something comes in, as long as we get it quickly. I think the Varroa program in Townsville is running extremely well at the moment, and I am pretty sure we will be successful in that one as well.
Enhanced and comprehensive versions
At the roundtable, the Committee asked PHA to provide a budget breakdown of enhanced and comprehensive versions of the NBPSP. These figures were provided in the submission to the inquiry.
The proposed Model 3 (Enhanced) of the NBPSP, at an annual cost of $1 888 444, would allow for:
345 Asian honeybee catchboxes; and
32 floral sweeping locations.
The proposed Model 4 (Comprehensive) of the NBPSP, at an annual cost of $3 141 865, would allow for:
580 Asian honeybee catchboxes; and
54 floral sweeping locations.
This comprehensive version would feature remote catchboxes only, making monitoring entirely off-site.
Funding for the program is a result of a substantial and comprehensive partnership, given that the relatively small beekeeping industry cannot afford to do it alone, and recognising the wider industry and economic impacts should bee pests become established.
Dr Kim Ritman, the Australian Chief Plant Protection Officer, summarised the current funding arrangements:
… the funding for the ongoing program, in discussion at the moment, comes through the [RDCs]. There is matching funding from the Commonwealth, in that it is an industry program. [PHA runs] a technical committee, which includes industry, to look at improvements to the program. There are a number of recommendations that have come out of that, and the Commonwealth, with Plant Health Australia, is looking to fund some of those.
Mr Fraser further expanded on funding arrangements, working with partners engaged in biosecurity activities:
One way we can do that, clearly, is to work through organisations like Horticulture Innovation, which has a lot of pollination-dependent industries or growers of those commodities as their members. What we can actually do is look at engaging with the RDCs. The two we work with on pollination-related activities are RIRDC and HIA. We also work with all states and territories and the Commonwealth government as well. We try and put together a program that is funded by as many people as possible, so that we can not only increase the total quantum of funds but also share the activity a bit and get resources. Some of those resources might be in kind from a state perspective, for example, but that is fine, if it allows us to do the job better.
Further research and development
The PHA submission to the inquiry briefly outlined several areas that require further research and development effort.
The submission stated that, while rigorous statistical analysis of the sensitivity of sentinel hives has been carried out, an equivalent level of analysis for the other NBPSP methodologies has yet to be performed. Further, the analysis will be necessary to assess the efficiency of the program and where modifications should be made.
The submission also states that both standard and remote catchboxes have yet to be optimised, with further research required to determine how to make them more attractive to honey bee swarms and whether pheromone or floral lures may be useful.
Additionally, some Australian ports still have unknown risk ratings. Detailed risk analysis of these ports and airports is required to determine the best way to direct the program.
Other issues to consider
Dr Ritman discussed some of the evidence-based work that occurs along the biosecurity defence continuum:
The border is important, and it is part of the system … there is pre-border work that we do offshore … with shipping companies with awareness at the ports by handlers. We do surveys overseas. We have webcrawlers that are looking for where pests are moving internationally to be able to get intelligence about where things are on the move …
Mr Weatherhead of AHBIC suggested that a key part of the defence should be pre-embarkation inspections, before goods are loaded onto vessels. Mr Weatherhead discussed a recent incursion of Asian honey bees in Brisbane:
… they came in a cable reel that came out of Singapore or somewhere like that. That nest was in there, and our contention is: why did they not pick it up when they loaded it on the way in? We have had vehicles come out of Malaysia with nests actually in the vehicles. Why did they not pick them up when they loaded those vehicles into the thing?
The potentially major issue of smuggling was raised in the roundtable by Dr Paul De Barro of CSIRO.
Dr De Barro stated that there have been examples of the smuggling of queen bees through the mail, with those bees potentially carrying Varroa. Further, Dr De Barro suggested that even though these incidents are reasonably rare, those bees will be put straight into hives, enabling rapid establishment of pests.
Dr De Barro suggested that smuggling could possibly be a major issue, because it circumvents all surveillance efforts which assume entry at a port.
Breeding bees that are resistant to pests and diseases was raised as a potential opportunity for the Australian beekeeping industry to be one step ahead of the Varroa threat.
Mr Fraser of PHA was fully supportive of this approach, which is carried out in many other agricultural industries:
I would really like to encourage the industry, too, to look at these breeding opportunities that exist, as we do in a whole range of other commodities. When we have got a potential threat out there, we try and build resistance into our own crops to make sure it is less risky when things do come in.
Dr De Barro of CSIRO supported the pursuit of improved selective breeding:
We should be looking simply outside of the box a bit to say, ‘Could we do something similar in bees or like?’ and starting to look more broadly. There are two issues: resistance to the Varroa and resistance to the virus. How could we perhaps look at other perhaps non-traditional ways to give us that edge because we have not really explored that right now?
Mr Weatherhead of AHBIC explained that the Australian beekeeping industry is working on genetically improving bees through breeding:
There are programs overseas at the moment, and we are looking to import some of that genetic material into Australia. The contention with the breeding program itself is whether the resistance is to the actual mite or to the viruses that are being vectored by the bee. It is actually viruses that kill the bee in the long run; it is not the Varroa … One of the ways we are looking to do that is that we have a provision to be able to import queen bees into Australia. The latest is through drone bee semen, but we are having a disagreement with the department on what protocols should be in place to check for this deformed wing virus in particular, when it arrives in Australia.
The Committee applauds the collaborative approach being undertaken against the significant threat that the arrival of Varroa presents to the Australian honey bee and wider agricultural industries.
The Committee is of the opinion that front-line defence before (pre-embarkation) and at Australian ports is crucial, and plays the most significant role in preventing the introduction of pest bees and bee pests.
The Committee notes that Model 2 of the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program is now being implemented. This model sees a substantial increase in efforts to monitor entry of pest bees. The Committee recognises that Model 2, which commenced in December 2016 and will continue until 2021, covers 14 high-risk ports that account for 95 per cent of the total import volume of trade in Australia.
Noting that early interception remains the most critical factor in preventing the establishment of bee pests, the Committee recommends an extension of the program, based on Model 3 proposed in the program’s review and redesign provided by Plant Health Australia. Effectively doubling the funding for the program would substantially increase port coverage, from 32 to 54 ports. The number of sentinel hives would increase from 174 to 278. The number of standard catchboxes would be slightly reduced, however the number of remote catchboxes would increase significantly from 40 to 210. Asian honeybee catchboxes would increase by 30 per cent, and floral sweeping efforts would be doubled. The Committee understands that remotely operated catchboxes would replace standard catchboxes in many locations, reducing or eliminating the need for physical on-site examination.
Implementation of Model 3 would see a significant increase in effective coverage across the country, accounting for 54 ports and close to 100 per cent of the total port import volume of trade. The annual cost of approximately $1.9 million is comparatively small, given that the program essentially protects a $100 million beekeeping industry and pollination services provided to a $4 billion agriculture industry. The value that this program provides to the protection of the broader Australian agriculture industry cannot be underestimated.
The Committee expects that a cost-benefit analysis of Model 4 may demonstrate that an annual expenditure of $3.14 million would only achieve marginal further port coverage benefits.
The Committee recommends that the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program implement, by 30 June 2017, the proposed enhanced Model 3 program, as outlined in the recent review and redesign. The appropriate proportion of funds should be provided by the relevant Commonwealth agencies involved in the program partnership.
The Committee notes the central role that members of the public have played in detecting and reporting biosecurity incursions, and the assistance they have provided to recent pest eradication programs. The Committee also considers that technology (for example, smartphone applications which may help educate members of the public and assist them to record sightings of pest bees) should be fully utilised.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government investigate the development of an easy to use smart phone application which may help members of the public to more easily contribute to eradication programs.
The Committee agrees with the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council regarding the location of some sentinel hives, in that they should be closer to ports where practicable. The Committee encourages the managers of the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program to investigate the relocation of particular sentinel hives that industry partners may deem to be too far away from a port.
The Committee recognises the urgent need to complete the necessary research and development on various aspects of the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program. The Committee recommends that the program partners immediately initiate the rigorous statistical analysis of all program methodologies, which will allow the efficiency of the program to be assessed, and the development of any program refinements, adjustments or modifications. Particular focus should be given to research on the effectiveness or optimisation of standard and remote catchboxes.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government immediately initiate the necessary research and development that will allow the efficiency of the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program to be assessed, with a view to the development of any program refinements, adjustments or modifications. The rigorous statistical analysis of all methodologies should be the highest priority, with particular focus on the effectiveness or optimisation of standard and remote catchboxes. The research and analysis should aim to be completed by June 2018.
The Committee expects that this research and analysis should aim to be completed by June 2018, with any National Bee Pest Surveillance Program adjustments to be implemented immediately thereafter.
Detailed risk analysis of Australian ports will inform the direction and implementation of the National Bee Pest Surveillance Program. The Committee recommends that the Australian Government complete the analysis of pest bee risk ratings for the remaining Australian ports that do not have such ratings. The assessment should include airports, and it should also include pre-embarkation inspections and processes at various ports.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government complete the analysis of pest bee risk ratings for the Australian ports that do not have such ratings. The assessment should include airports, and it should also include pre-embarkation inspections and processes at various ports. The assessment should be completed by the end of 2017 and a copy of the completed assessment provided to the Committee.
The issue of smuggling of bees warrants further investigation. The Committee wishes to see a detailed examination of this issue, including the number of incidents, the percentage of incidents where pests were discovered, the potential for further incursions, and how to prevent, detect or combat such incidents.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government undertake a detailed analysis of the smuggling of bees into Australia. The analysis should include, but not be limited to, the total number of incidents, the percentage of incidents where pests were discovered, the potential for further incursions, and how to prevent, detect or combat such incidents. A copy of the analysis should be provided to the Committee upon completion.
The Committee expects that this research and analysis should aim to be completed by June 2018, with any National Bee Pest Surveillance Program adjustments to be implemented immediately thereafter.
Given the immediacy of the risks and the need for rapid response when a pest entry is identified, the Committee has set timeframes in its recommendations. The Committee seeks an expedited response to its report and dedicated efforts to meet the timeframes recommended.
The issue of selective breeding of bees that are resistant to pests and the diseases that they carry was raised during the roundtable. The discussion was relatively short and warrants further examination and broader industry investigation. In particular, research and development is required into the selective breeding of honey bees for disease resistance.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in conjunction with domestic and possibly international industry partners, initiate research and development into selective breeding of honey bees that are resistant to pests and diseases that may have a detrimental effect on the Australian honey bee industry.
The Committee thanks all individuals and organisations that provided information and participated in the roundtable for this inquiry. The Committee will maintain a watching brief on Australian honey bee industry issues.
2 March 2017