PODCAST EPISODE 70: Dr John Roberts, entomologist and bee expert at the CSIRO, Australia
There are amazing Australians working to keep the country and the planet healthy and disease-free. We have all seen the incredible work that healthcare workers are doing day in, day out, to test, and vaccinate people from catching COVID-19, as well as those nurses and doctors doing the tough job of treating patients with the virus in hospitals. Luckily, there are also incredible scientists and environmentalists working hard to keep the environment safe, and that includes Australian bee populations. For the first time in 15 years, bees are being imported into Australia for a very special purpose. As Tim Lee for ABC Landline explains, the foreign imported queen bees have special traits to protect them against the blood-sucking pest, varroa mite, which has devastated bee colonies all over the world, with Australia being the only continent still varroa-mite free. It is for that reason that I am thrilled to introduce you to entomologist and bee expert at the CSIRO John Roberts for episode 70 of the BEES WITH BEN beekeeping podcast, so that he can fill us in on these new breeding and importing programs.
But to begin, what is varroa mite, you ask? Varroa destructor (Varroa mite) is an external parasitic mite that attacks honey bees, Apis cerana and Apis mellifera, and can only reproduce in a honey bee colony. It is also the parasite that has the most devastating effect on the beekeeping industry overall. The mite attaches itself to the body of the bee and weakens it by sucking its blood; this occurs on both adult bees and developing brood, especially drone brood. During this terrible process, viruses spread, such as deformed wing virus. In turn, this process weakens and shortens the bee’s life. The emerging brood may be born without legs or wings or suffering deformations. If the infestation grows, varroa mite can kill whole bee colonies. Australia has been diligent in keeping varroa out of the country, but this breeding project that imports varroa-resistant bees into Australia is the industry’s most recent approach.
John’s experience and research has included studies on the genetics, pathogens and management of emerging Varroa and Tropilaelaps mite pests in Papua New Guinea, conducting the first Australia-wide study of honey bee viruses and other pathogens affecting honey bees, and examining genetic and nutritional factors associated with the honey bee fungal pathogens, Nosema and chalkbrood.
At the CSIRO, his primary role has been to screen bees for the presence of viruses, which makes this recent breeding and importing program an exciting move for him – he told the ABC that he hopes Australia can make the most of breeding programs such as this one to “bring in those genetics.” Furthermore, he would love to see Australian apiarists continue to develop this strain of varroa-resistant bee, which would be a “landmark for the industry.”
Tune in to hear John and I discuss his role at the CSIRO, the nasty varroa destructor, and the potentials of breeding and importing disease-resistant bees into Australia.