Saving Aussie honey bees - and farmers

In a bid to protect Australia's farming industry, a La Trobe University student is tackling one of the most destructive diseases currently plaguing the nation's honey bees.

Bees play a vital role in fruit and vegetable production by cross-pollinating plants. While Australia's bee population is currently one of the strongest in the world, it is under threat from a highly contagious disease, called Chalkbrood. 

Bendigo PhD student Jody Gerdts has received a $176,500 grant to help her find out more about this disease. The grant is part of the Honey Bee and Pollination Program, which is jointly funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC), Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited and the Australian Government.

Much of the world's bee population has been decimated by the deadly Varroa mite – which does not exist in Australia thanks to strict border patrol.

However, Chalkbrood has reduced honey production by almost 40 per cent in some cases. Chalkbrood is a fungus that infects and kills bee larvae within the hive, which reduces the adult bee population.

Jody's project, which will run for three years, will investigate "hygienic behaviour" in bees.

"The way some bees defend against Chalkbrood is they are able to identify the infected larvae using their sense of smell and remove them from the nest, and this is known as hygienic behaviour," Jody said.

"The trait can be inherited and we will work on breeding that behaviour into bees. Also, some bees don't catch this disease because their immune systems are really strong. So we need to work out why.

"It's really important that we get our bees as healthy as possible given the Varroa mite is causing worldwide collapse of the honeybee industry." 

Beekeepers in each state have been asked to assist with the project by sending in bees from Chalkbrood-infected colonies for genetic testing.

The aim of the project is to provide information back to queen breeders so they have a scientific basis for selective breeding of disease resistant honey bees. 

This will not only benefit the management of chalkbrood, but other existing pests and diseases – and better prepare the industry for any exotic incursions.

Image: Flickr

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