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Dangerous liaisons: the problem with Asian and Australian honey bees mating 23 Sep 2014

Australian beekeepers are being warned about the risk of unnatural matings with a new study showing honey production and pollination services could be at risk due to the presence of Asian honey bees in Queensland.

The Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) became established in Cairns in 2007 and research has now been conducted on what impact there might be if they mate (interspecific mating) with the European-derived honey bees (Apis mellifera) which are the basis of the honey and pollination industries throughout Australia.

Professor Ben Oldroyd and Dr Emily Remnant of the University of Sydney conducted the research as part of the Asian Honey Bee Transition to Management Plan, with funds from the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, administered through the Honey Bee and Pollination Program. The Program is managed by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) and Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL).

The research found that queens and drones of these two species often meet and mate as they fly at similar times and places. Genetic testing using DNA markers showed the presence of Asian honey bee sperm in the sperm storage organs of one third of the Australian commercial queens sampled in Cairns. 

Dr Michael Hornitzky, Chair of the Program’s advisory committee, said both commercial and hobby beekeepers are on the front line of biosecurity and need to be aware of possible threats to bees, such as interspecies mating, as well as best practise management and control methods.

“Australia’s European honey bee colonies will become increasingly at risk of collapse if mating with Asian honey bees becomes a regular occurrence.

“Depending on the proportion of Asian and European honey bee males that mate with the queen, her fertility will be reduced and her eggs will not hatch, reducing the productivity of colonies headed by European honey bee queens that mate in areas where Asian honey bees are present.  

“This in turn could lead to bees being less effective at honey production and pollination. We know that in Australia approximately 65% of horticulture and agricultural crops produced require pollination services from honey bees, so this is a key concern, especially as it will impact feral bee colonies as well as managed hives.

“This important research serves as a warning to beekeepers that it’s better to source queens only from areas where Asian honey bees are not present.

“We should do everything we can do to stop the spread of Asian honey bees south into Australia’s major queen breeding areas,” said Dr Hornitzky.

For more information, go to www.rirdc.gov.au/honeybee or view the fact sheet at https://rirdc.infoservices.com.au/items/14-049