After months-long border closure, Victorian beekeepers can bring their bees home from NSW

After a parasite outbreak in NSW shut borders for seven months, beekeeper Lindsay Callaway will soon be able to bring hundreds of his hives trapped across the border back to Victoria, but he says he has already lost about $250,000 worth of work pollinating crops.

NSW has been declared free from the varroa destructor mite, except for in 25-kilometre zones around infected hives, with the reopening of the border coming as a relief to the industry that many plant-based foods depend on.

Commercial beekeeper Lindsay Callaway.Credit:Justin McManus

Beekeepers – who often work across states to follow flowering seasons – were banned from moving their hives and equipment out of NSW and thousands of hives were destroyed to eradicate the varroa mite.

“It’ll be a little bit emotional bringing them back over the river,” said Callaway, who has 800 hives feeding off red gums and black box eucalypts in the Southern Riverina as floral resources come to an end in southern NSW.

Australia was one of the few countries free of the varroa mite – a tiny parasite that attacks and feeds on honey bees, eventually killing entire colonies – before it was detected in Newcastle last June.

Its emergence threatened to destabilise food production on the east coast, but allowing hives to move freely within states meant the impacts were limited, according to Bianca Giggins, the varroa coordinator at the Australian Honey Bee Industry Council.

Beekeepers have been banned from bringing hives or equipment from NSW due to the varroa mite outbreak.Credit:Simon Schluter

“Beekeepers are sort of the unknown heroes of some of the work that happens for food to be on tables,” Giggins said. “They have taken one for the team.”

Stephen Dibley, Victoria’s acting chief plant health officer, said on Friday that the state would follow a cautious and staged approach to managing the biosecurity risks as hives are brought back from NSW.

“There will also be an increased testing regime required for all hives moving into Victoria,” he said.

Callaway, who is based northwest of Melbourne, said an eradication campaign was necessary to safeguard the industry and food security.

“We’ve had flood issues and hungry bees … It’s been, honestly, one of the most challenging springs that I’ve experienced in 30-plus years of beekeeping.”

He had three contracts to pollinate canola in NSW but had to cancel the two biggest and instead use 800 hives he had in the state to fulfil the smallest contract. Those hives were also unable to cross the border for the almond season in Victoria, which Callaway said cost his business about $250,000 all up.

Commercial honey producer Ken Gell said he was lucky not to have any hives in NSW when the border shut, but that the restrictions, which coincided with a cold and wet spring, still cost him at least one-tenth of his hives. He said his honey production plummeted by half.

Without the varroa mite, Gell said his bees would have crossed the border to feed off red gums on the Murray River. Instead, they were feeding in Gippsland where the flowers were poor quality and in shorter supply because of wet weather.

“Instead of going over the border, to keep our hives alive, we just had to sit at home and do nothing because the weather was that poor down here,” Gell said.

Next month, almond growers will harvest their crop and discover what impact the bee restrictions had on yields after an estimated 70,000 hives were unable to get to Victoria for pollination last August.

Almond Board of Australia chief executive Tim Jackson was cautious of celebrating the reopening of borders while varroa was still present in parts of NSW, but said allowing hives to travel would ensure they were healthy and fed in time for this year’s pollination – expected to be the biggest yet.

“Things are going in the right direction, put it that way,” he said.

“We’ve had lots of things go wrong in the last 12 months. We’ve had hail storms, wind storms, flood, and pollination, so it’s been a tough year.”

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