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The bee health crisis: what it means for world food production

05 July, 2013

A leading international bee expert who has teamed with local beekeepers and experts has been awarded nearly $600,000 to help combat a global decline in bee health that threatens world food production.

The University of Western Australia's Professor Boris Baer and his team will undertake research that will help to protect not only bees but the production of food for humans.

Australian Research Council Future Fellow Professor Baer said bees — managed and feral — pollinate about one-third of everything we eat. And bees around the world are under threat.

"The US has lost more than 10 million hives over the last six years and is having problems securing crop pollination," Professor Baer, of UWA's Centre for Integrative Bee Research (CIBER), said.

"Here in Australia, beekeepers report increasing problems in coping with diseases such as American foul brood, hive beetle and the parasitic fungi Nosema. The arrival of the main villain, the Varroa mite, is expected in the coming decade and will have a catastrophic effect on our honeybees.

"We need about 750,000 hives to pollinate our crops but we currently have only about 500,000 managed colonies. A lot of the pollination is done by feral bees at the moment, but they are expected to be wiped out by Varroa."

An important step in the race against time to save the bees is to understand more about their immune system.

"Bees harbour more than 80 different parasites but they have an efficient immune system to cope with these diseases — or they wouldn't have survived for tens of millions of years," Professor Baer said.

"Our pilot work has shown that bees possess substances that are very efficient at killing parasitic fungi and we need to identify the molecules responsible and understand their function. This will allow us to search specifically for more parasite-tolerant bees and breed them.

"It also offers the opportunity to produce new treatments against diseases if such molecules could be produced commercially."

Professor Baer said the ARC Linkage scheme provided $430,000 and Better Bees $120,000 towards his research.

The research team at CIBER — with partners including the Australian bee industry and international collaborators — aims to intensify research into honeybee reproduction, immunity and ecology.  The goal is to better understand honeybees to spare Australia from the dramatic losses encountered everywhere else in the world.

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Bert Stahr | Monday, July 8, 2013, 4:42 PM
The main culprit in the USA was the poison developed to kill white ants. Fipronil. This has now been outlawed in many states. The following is part of an article written on the subject. Despite the fact that official information seems to indicate Fipronil is an insecticide that does not present serious concerns, a history of its use paints a different picture. For example, Fipronil has been banned by several countries around the world, including Italy, France, and China. Other countries, such as the U.K. and Australia have given serious consideration to the ban of this particular pesticide. It is notable that these bans do not stem primarily from concern over the pesticide’s effect on humans; rather, the bans are in place due to studies showing Fipronil’s adverse—and often unintended—impact on a variety of animals. Firponil is highly toxic to fish and aquatic invertebrates, bees, and certain bird species. Because Fipronil degrades slowly once it is in the soil or the water, these animals are at particular risk for harmful levels of exposure. In many of the places where Fipronil has been banned, significant negative effects on agricultural or fishing activities have been documented.
Robin Mark | Tuesday, July 9, 2013, 9:52 AM
This is good use of money, hopefully answers come out of it. It would be good if a substantial grant was also awarded to find out why our frogs are disappearing, given they are the first indicator that all is not well with a particular ecosystem.
Disillusioned | Tuesday, July 9, 2013, 5:34 PM
I believe the decline of creatures in our world and human cancers is the result of harmful chemicals used in agriculture which is upsetting the whole eco system right down to bee's and further. Just maybe humans and bees immune systems are so overloaded trying to cope with toxicity that there is not enough fire power left in immune systems to cope with cancer invasions and Varroa in bees. The chemical and pharmaceutical companies have a lot of blood on their hands yet to be exposed. What responsible entity would develop and distribute Fipronil and all the other toxic stuff we have to live with. Imagine if we taxed heavily anything independently tested as toxic thereby forcing companies to develop safe stuff...are but I dream, for greed and corruption get in the way of creating a better world. Also imagine if we humans lived for a much longer period say for as long as nuclear waste existed, our outlook towards our environment would be totally different. It's really not that hard we just have to think differently than we do now, so that we change how much we care about everyone and everything around us.