New South Wales (NSW) authorities have told a Senate inquiry into Australia’s biosecurity preparedness they remain confident they have contained the varroa mite.
It comes after earlier evidence from the head of NSW beekeepers, who are worried the deadly parasite can’t be eradicated.
The Department of Primary Industry’s Dr John Tracey told the inquiry almost 14,000 hives had been euthanised so far, with more than 75 per cent of hives in the eradication zone destroyed.
“We are confident, based on the information that we have, that we have successfully delimited the infestation, and we’re continuing to work in from the edges of those areas as we euthanise the hives,” he said.
Department head Scott Hansen told the inquiry he was convinced the right areas have been contained.
“After more than almost 100,000 tests across hives, we still don’t have any positives outside of our currently identified eradication zones,” he said.
It’s still unclear how the varroa destructor mite arrived in Australia.
Department officials say the origin might never be determined, although genetic sequencing has shown it is only one outbreak.
The inquiry was told permits had been granted for 333,000 hives to be moved since a permit system was introduced in June when the mite was first detected around Newcastle.
One-third of those hives were moved for pollination.
The inquiry was told the baiting of wild bees using the insecticide Fipronil, which began in October, had been “a critical step”.
Tracey said the program showed “very promising results in terms of … not only the attraction of honey bees in these areas but also the impact of Fipronil baiting, in terms of dead bees”.
The baits have been laid out around infected premises at Jerrys Plains, west of Newcastle and will be extended to other eradication zones across the state, with additional staff to be recruited.
The head of the NSW Apiarists Association gave evidence that he doesn’t think the eradication program will work partly because of feral hives.
Steve Fuller said a program to eradicate varroa had been hurt by feral hives and people illegally moving hives.
Asked whether the government’s eradication program would be successful, he said “personally … I’m going to say no”.
“I doubt if we can track all these feral hives,” Fuller said on Wednesday.
He told the inquiry the penalties for beekeepers were significant but needed to be enforced.
Beekeepers illegally moving hives can be fined as much as $1.1 million for individuals and $2.2 million for businesses.
The inquiry was told there had been 31 infringement notices but no fines issued for the illegal movement of hives.
The head of Amateur Beekeepers Australia, Sheila Stokes, believes authorities aren’t willing to prosecute beekeepers doing the wrong thing.
“I don’t have a high level of confidence that the DPI (NSW Department of Primary Industries) compliance are following up on all of those,” she told the inquiry.
Department head Mr Hansen said officials would be “following through” on those who broke the rules.
The inquiry was told a lack of key personnel to inspect hives had slowed down the eradication program.
“Definitely, a lack of trained personnel has slowed things down,” Stokes said.
Mr Hansen said the department had the workforce to operate effectively in the face of a large-scale incursion.
A standstill of movement of beehives remains in place in NSW, although some registered commercial beekeepers can move hives in low-risk areas.
The inquiry was also told by the research development corporation Hort Innovation that they were exploring technology that detects and controls varroa mites.
That includes lasers, artificial intelligence and gas sensors which limit the spread of varroa, some of which are already in use overseas.