Australia has been invaded - and the powers that be seem little bothered by it.
The invasion is real. It took place in May 2007 and since that time the invaders have been detected in a couple of dozen different beachheads in northern Australia. Soon they will be headed south to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, if they haven’t already made the jump already, courtesy of the transport chaos arising from the Queensland floods and cyclone Yasi.
The invader in this case is the Java strain of the Asian bee, Apis cerana. At risk is $2 billion a year, the price of food to Australian consumers, the fate of numerous rural industries, and incalculable impacts on Australian native flowers and trees.
After an initial attempt to contain and eradicate the invaders, experts concluded recently this was probably impossible, that the Asian bee was here for good and, on February 2, 2011, a decision was taken by a majority of governments to end control efforts.
Compared with the well-established European honey bee (Apis mellifera), the Asian bee is a poor honey maker, swarms prolifically, and is capable of outcompeting and destroying colonies of both the European bee and native Australian bees. In the Solomon Islands recently it almost annihilated the honey bee industry, reducing it from 2000 hives to just five.
The alarming collapse of honey bee populations in the United States and Europe in recent years – due to other, as yet unknown, causes – has underscored the huge economic, social and ecological significance of the hard-working honey bee to modern civilisation, and the need to protect it.
Bees may seem a small issue among those the occupy the attention of our leaders, but many of the flowering plants, trees and farm crops on the Australian continent depend on wild or domesticated bees for pollination – ferrying pollen from male to female flowers as they collect nectar. Changes in the bee population can cause dramatic changes in the reproduction of trees, shrubs, crops and other flowering plants on which civilisation depends.
CSIRO has estimated that bee pollination is involved in about one out of every three mouthfuls of food we take. Australian farm crops requiring pollination are worth over $1.8 billion, cover almost a million hectares and include apples, pears, avocados, cherries, apricots, plums, mangoes, almonds and sunflowers as well as some livestock pastures and numerous vegetables like melons and cucumbers. Significant loss of pollination services would have a direct impact on the market price of food to consumers and indirectly on the inflation rate. While the effect of replacing European with Asian bees in the environment and on farms is unknown, we should not forget what happened to Australian frogs and reptiles once the cane toad cut loose. The question is: are we prepared to accept a similar risk?
At the same time Asian bees are estimated by the Rural Industries R&D Corporation to pose a risk to public health and a potential public nuisance with social costs running to tens of millions of dollars. (Think, for example, of the proliferating European wasp in the southern states).
At present the invading Asian bees are thought to occupy a foothold in a smallish region around Cairns, in far north Queensland – but such is their trick of hiding in ships, trucks, containers, crates, building materials and transport generally they may already be hundreds, even thousands of kilometres away, spreading out across the continent. The huge transport effort to bring cyclone and flood relief to the north may, ironically, have provided them with the perfect spring board to the rest of Australia.
It is estimated that wiping out the Asian bee will cost around $10 million, which seems a small price to pay – but the experts are divided on whether it is even possible, hence the governments’ recent decision to axe the control program and accept the Asian bee as endemic to Australia.
It is fair to say there would be considerable national outcry if either the Defence Department or Immigration decided to adopt a similar stance and accept an invading army or band of illegal immigrants as ‘endemic’. We would surely, at least first, give the enforcement of national security a serious go. It is important to consider whether biosecurity is any different, just because it is about insects or microbes, because a breach may still involve considerable harm to the national interest.
If there is any possibility at all for controlling the invasion of the Asian honey bee, for the sake of innumerable industries and livelihoods, the price of food and the existing balance in the Australian landscape, we should at least be willing to give it our best shot.
Julian Cribb is a Canberra-based science writer. He recently authored a book about the global food crisis, The Coming Famine.
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