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Thursday, 3 March 2011
Page: 1183

Senator BOSWELL (6:38 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I wish to speak to this Auditor-General’s report, entitled Performance audit—Restoring the balance in the Murray-Darling Basin. As we all know, the Murray-Darling Basin is the biggest food bowl in Australia, and that food depends on the pollination of plants, including vegetables and everything else that is grown there. Tonight I want to expose a threat to food bowls all around Australia, but particularly in the Murray-Darling Basin. The food industry and even our environmental industry is being challenged by this threat, which does not come in the shape of a human or a natural disaster but in the form of an animal, namely a bee from Java.

Currently in Australia there is an incursion of the Asian honey bee in Cairns. There is a concern that it will move into the Murray-Darling Basin. This bee is a native to Java, Indonesia, and has infested itself near many of the territories around Australia, namely Papua New Guinea and the Solomons. It has now taken up home in our backyard and could well end up in the Murray-Darling Basin.

In 2007 the first nests of the Asian honey bee were found. The bee carries with it a mite from Java known as the varroa mite. This particular mite is carried on the back of the Asian honey bee and carries with it viruses that can be lethal to the European bee, which is the bee we have in Australia. The Asian bee, carrying the mite, will invade the European honey bee hive. The mite can then transfer itself onto the European bee, bringing with it viruses that will result in fatalities in the adult bees in the hive. The mite will also get in amongst the bee larvae, weakening the unborn bees and causing further losses. In areas such as the Solomons and New Guinea, the effect of this bee and the mite has already been devastating.

While there have been no instances of the mite being found on the Asian honey bee in Australia as yet, there is evidence to suggest it will come if not prevented and will ultimately find its way into the Murray-Darling Basin. Already, because of the quarantine protocols of other countries, the fact that the mite may exist on our bees has caused the overseas demand for Australian queen bees to decline. Unlike the European bee, this bee is not able to be  domesticated and it produces little honey. Instead it will rob honey from European honey bee hives like a forager. If this bee makes its way from Cairns down into the food bowls of Australia it will cause many honey producers and controlled pollinators to experience significant loss in their yield.

The bee does not just threaten the honey and pollination industry of Australia; it is also is a threat to public safety, as it establishes nests in cavities within houses and creates a nuisance in urban areas. Furthermore, its impact on the environment is significant, as it stings native animals and insects, disrupting the ecosystem significantly. Further, their nesting sites compete with native insects and they also compete for food. As I have already stated, if the varroa mite is able to breed in Australia the results will be devastating for all primary industry. At first glance the problem is contained within Queensland; however, if allowed flourish, the beekeepers of Australia are adamant that the swarms will spread further, to different states, and will end up in the Murray-Darling Basin. If not stopped, the Asian bee infestation has the potential to do to our honey industry what the rabbit did to our graziers. So what is being done to stop the rot?

This week bee farmers from all over Australia have come to Canberra to voice their concern on this vital food security issue. In April 2010 there was a program initiated that was designed to come up with a solution to the Asian bee problem. In November 2010 this program was significantly scaled back. Now only a staff of 11 researchers remain in the program to carry on the research. Out of those 11 staff members, none are field researchers, which means the program is effectively shut down. This is because no real practical progress can be made without the input of field scientists. This program will be officially cut out altogether on 31 March and then there will be no other way for the beekeepers of Australia to fight this menace. This is a threat all over Australia.

The Commonwealth government at this time feels that, based on evidence provided to it by a technical committee, the bee infestation is not eradicable. The government seems to be of the impression that to carry on this vital research is a waste of time and money. Furthermore, by not doing anything about the problem, the federal government is effectively giving the message that it feels the threat will not spread from Queensland to other states, but we are concerned about the Murray-Darling as well. However, the beekeepers of Queensland and the Queensland government are of the opinion that the problem can be fixed. They believe that the bee is eradicable and that, given the right amount of funding and support, the Asian bees can be wiped out from our shores for good. Also, information from the CSIRO suggests that the swarms can and will move to other states if given a chance.

It is interesting to note that the government faced a similar problem with regard to the invasion of the papaya fruit fly. However, due to the government’s willingness to fight on and find a solution to the problem, that problem was solved. That is what we need to do for the infestation that we are fighting now. At the moment it is thought by beekeepers that in order to restart a credible program a figure of $5 million a year must be obtained. I put it to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that that is a very small amount of money to protect our environment and our native bees. Five million dollars for one year, to prevent the total annihilation of the Queensland or even the national honey bee industry seems like a small price to pay, and it is not only to protect the bee industry. This problem is very serious from an environmental point of view.

The Queensland government has already developed a model by which they believe the problem can be tackled. I therefore ask the Commonwealth government to take action. We need to fight this feral menace for the good of our primary food producers, not to mention our own fragile ecosystem. It seems absurd that a country that stands up for primary industry and the environment would allow a problem to exist that has the potential to wipe out a very important sector of our rural economy, when it is thought that it could be fixed so easily and for so little. I therefore ask the federal government to listen to the plight of the Australian beekeepers and industry, and either provide the full amount of funding for the eradication program, which is really insignificant, or at least work with the Queensland government and provide partial funding so that this plague can be stopped before it is too late.