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.