Varroa mites, a recently acquired parasite of honey bees (Apis mellifera), have caused significant global bee population collapses over the past fifty years. While Australia remained the only continent without Varroa, recent detections in New South Wales indicate their arrival. This introduction will have profound implications for beekeeping, crop pollination, and the structure of native pollinator ecosystems. It presents a unique opportunity for a natural experiment, enabling the observation of real-time ecological and evolutionary changes, as well as the implementation of decisions crucial to Australian food security.
Our primary objective is to conduct extensive field research and gather pre-Varroa data by establishing and monitoring a network of honey bee swarm traps. The data collected through these traps will allow us to address a wide range of research questions, including:
- How will honey bee populations evolve in response to this novel parasite? Is there potential for the development of resistance?
- What are the mechanisms and patterns of Varroa spread, and how does the mite itself evolve over time?
- Varroa acts as a vector for bee viruses, which are responsible for colony deaths. How does this new vector affect the viral communities within bee populations?
- Is there evidence suggesting that bee viruses amplified by Varroa can impact native bees?
- How does the arrival of Varroa influence competition dynamics among different bee species? Are there implications for the pollination of specific plant species?
By addressing these inquiries, we can gain valuable insights into the ongoing ecological and evolutionary processes related to Varroa infestation. This research will help inform strategies to mitigate the impact of Varroa on honey bees, protect native pollinators, and ensure the continued pollination of vital plant species.
Overall, our study aims to not only understand the immediate effects of Varroa mites on honey bees and ecosystems but also to contribute to long-term solutions that uphold food security in Australia.
- Chapman et al. 2023. The final frontier: ecological and evolutionary dynamics of a global parasite invasion, Biology Letters.