The NSW Government Is Killing Millions Of Bees Across The State

"The lack of transparency is really disturbing to us."

Bees NSW

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The NSW Government is killing millions of bees in an attempt to quash a parasite outbreak, in a move that beekeepers say is short-sighted, inhumane, and preventable.

A petition has garnered more than 5000 signatures at time of publication, begging the state Department of Primary Industries (DPI) to explore alternative treatments for varroa mites, when no other country has ever been able to successfully eradicate, but have been able to control them.

The DPI established an eradication emergency zone, where as of Wednesday, 70 percent of hives had been euthanised, with more operations continuing to take place in the Newcastle and Hunter regions.

Both recreational and commercially managed hives are affected as part of the Biosecurity Emergency Order, placing hives with healthy bees that are currently not infested in the firing line. The bees in this zone cannot be moved elsewhere, and there is no appeals process for affected beekeepers against the measure.

What Is The Varroa Mite?

The varroa mite is a dangerous pest that targets commercial honey bees, and are rare in Australia, with the DPI estimating their damage could cause $70 million a year in losses if their presence becomes established.

If untreated, they can lead to hive deaths, deformed bees, parasites, as well as the fatality and growth inhibition of eggs, larvae, and pupae. Where it gets tricky is the spread of the mite from managed to feral hives — to which the ecological and environmental impacts have been debated.

The V. destructor species was detected in NSW in June, and come August, there were 99 infected beehive sites, with no clarity on how the mite first showed up in the state in the first place.

Alternative, safer methods for removing the mite from affected hives do exist, including manually cleaning the bees, and the use of safe acids to wash out the mites without harming the bees.

None of these treatments have been endorsed by the DPI, or made available as options to beekeepers — in a move described as putting down a dog with fleas, or closing borders without providing a vaccine.

A Labour Of Love

For Mika Benesh, beekeeping has been in their family for generations. Their father Dolfi has been producing natural honey full time for about a decade, however, has been keeping bees his whole life, and the practice has been passed down on his paternal side for generations.

Benesh themselves has been helping their dad out since high school and feels a deep connection to their families’ livelihood.

“My dad’s side are Holocaust survivors, so there’s lots of things that have been lost, but having held onto beekeeping is a really special thing to us and it has a lot of cultural and spiritual significance to our family,” Benesh told Junkee.

“He has a funny relationship with his bees, you know, he’ll talk to them, spend a lot of time with them. He can tell which group of hives a bee has come from just from looking at them.”

A couple of months ago, Dolfi was notified that his hives would be exterminated under the Biosecurity Emergency Order — despite his bees not being infested, a fact confirmed by the DPI during an inspection.

In a meeting held for affected beekeepers in August, the DPI said they were confident in their eradication strategy due to ‘extensive modelling’, but when asked to distribute their findings publicly, never provided the evidence.

“The lack of transparency is really disturbing to us, because under what basis are these decisions being made, and why is it not being shared with people? How can we understand something that is not being made clear to us? There’s been no effort made on the part of the DPI to justify this position,” said Benesh.

Friday is doomsday for Dolfi and his loved ones, with the DPI confirming they will kill all his bees without his consent, even threatening to have the police present to ensure their cooperation.

“My dad’s reaction has just been of confusion and frustration because he’s had a lot of experience with treating varroa overseas,” reflected Benesh. “We’ve been going through the phases of preemptive grief, and at the same time, being in crisis mode and trying to do everything that we can.”

Beekeepers Left In Lurch

The DPI has promised a reimbursement scheme for affected beekeepers: an $18 million support package where a $500 payment will be issued for each recreational hive that is destroyed. But Benesh said the compensation does not factor in a realistic re-establishment timeline.

“It’s based on the assumption that a beekeeper could get their hives rebuilt and back up to the same production level as they were previously in about three months — and that’s a process that takes several years,” they said.

Additionally, because of movement restrictions, sourcing a queen bee is harder than usual, and beekeepers in the eradication zone won’t be able to have their new hives in the same location for at least three years.

“So not only would we be facing the issue of finding a new place to keep all our bees, but then getting them up and running again; we’d be feeling the financial impacts for long after,” said Benesh.

At A Crossroad

“Small business issues are allegedly a concern of our government, but I don’t see much concern…”

Benesh told Junkee that despite the gravity of their family’s current situation, they’re still holding onto hope.

“Even, god forbid, they kill my family’s bees tomorrow, it still won’t be too late because we’re not the only ones affected,” they said. “It’s an immediate emergency for us, but it’s a long-term problem for people and it’s not going to go away.”

“Small business issues are allegedly a concern of our government, but I don’t see much concern for small businesses here — there’s definitely some hypocrisy,” continued Benesh, who sees saving the bees and saving livelihoods as an easy win-win.

They said that the overwhelming support online has helped their parents know that they’re not alone, and they have a large community standing behind them as they work towards bouncing back from the blows.

“What is the end point of this eradication? It just seems like it keeps being expanded and expanded to kill more and more bees,” they said. “If eradication isn’t nipping it in the bud — it hasn’t worked.”

“As soon as you’re killing healthy animals, you have to just question the whole project.”

Junkee reached out to the Department of Primary Industries’ varroa response team for comment.

You can sign the petition here.

Australian Honey bees filling cells with different coloured pollen. Photo Credit: Nick Pitsas/CSIRO

Photo Credit: Meggyn Pomerleau/Unsplash