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Science underpinning the inability to eradicate the Asian honey bee

ACTING CHAIR —Welcome, Mr Weatherhead. I also welcome Dr Whitten and Mr Bourke who are both giving evidence via teleconference. We have only 30 minutes, as we are sitting within the time frame set for us by the Senate today so we need to work fairly succinctly. Mr Weatherhead, would you like to start with an opening statement, and if you do have one if you could make it fairly succinct for us?

Mr Weatherhead —Yes, and thank you for the opportunity. I have been involved with Asian honey bees now since about 1992-93 when they first turned up in Torres Strait and we used to work with the late Dr David Banks on getting ourselves ready for what has happened—fortunately they have not come any further from where they are up there now. I would suggest that the committee get copies of the reports by Dr Sergeant and Dr Paskin that Dr Anderson talked about so you can see what they are about. From my assessment, it is one all at the moment—one for, one against—and I do not think you can really know.

 From my point of view, before the full eradication program was ended on 15 November we were getting nests that were younger and younger. So to us that was an indication that we were starting to get on top of it with those extra staff numbers—and remember that those extra staff had been in place only since about April. From our point of view, to say that it will not go past Brisbane or the northern rivers we think is incorrect. As Dr Anderson has said, you have only got to look at the predictions for things like the cane toads—and we call Asian bees ‘cane toads with wings.’ It was said that cane toads in Queensland would not go out onto the downs, into places like Condamine, but they are finding them there now. So I think that projections in the past have been shown to be very conservative.

From the biodiversity angle, we know that they have been found in a budgerigar cage where they took over a nest in an aviary and killed the chicks there. They have been found in letterboxes so they certainly will take over smaller areas, and I believe they will have a big effect on the native fauna that is out there.

On the pollination side, it is estimated that about $400 billion worth of crops in Australia rely on honey bees for pollination. We also supply a lot of the world’s seed from Australia to overseas, particularly in mother seed production. That is put at jeopardy and so we have coined the phrase, ‘food security needs bee security.’

With regard to the cost benefits, there was a cost-benefit analysis done but I do not think it was ever published due to disagreements among the people who were doing it. I have seen a copy of that through my involvement in the CCEAD and then the CCEPP, and it certainly came out in favour of eradication. Regarding the public costs, if you get a copy of Terry Ryan’s paper on that it will give you some costs. Just to give you another example, on Tuesday in Cairns a swarm of Asian bees closed down one of the airbridges at the Cairns airport when the swarm alighted there. That particular airbridge could not be used until the swarm was destroyed—so you can see what happens there.

With regard to eradication, it is my personal opinion that Asian honey bees certainly should be able to be eradicated. People said we could not eradicate papaya fruit fly and we did that. Regarding the cost of eradication, in November when the program finished the staff were put off because they ran out of money at that time and it was whether they were going to keep going. From the industry’s point of view, we do not have a lot of money. We think that maybe it should be seen as a full-on benefit to most of the public. The original one was given as a category 2 and we believe it should be a category 1 now, which is full government support. I would cite the myrtle rust problem where that was 100 per cent category 1 and obviously there were industry beneficiaries there. My main aim in trying to have this eradication program kept going is that in 20 or 30 years time I do not want people saying, ‘Why didn’t they just make that extra bit of effort and keep going and get rid of this pest because of the problems it was causing at that time?’

ACTING CHAIR —Thanks, Mr Weatherhead. Dr Whitten, have you got anything that you would like to add to that?

Dr Whitten —Yes. The Wheen Foundation, of which I am chairman, is a not-for-profit company that supports research and development to improve the profitability of beekeeping and pollination dependent industries. Since the 1970s I have been involved with the beekeeping industry as an advisor and I have stated my association in a written submission, which I take it can be tabled before the committee?

ACTING CHAIR —Yes, it will be.

Dr Whitten —At one point, when I was chief of the CSIRO Division of Entomology, I actually secured funding from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, ACIAR, to recruit Denis Anderson to study the Asian bee and its mites following its spread into PNG in the late 1980s. One element of the rationale in recruiting Dr Anderson was to accumulate scientific information to assist Australia to deal with the Asian bee and its mites should they enter our country. Now that time has arrived.

 In the submission I point out that, in my view, the European honey bee has probably been the most valuable insect ever imported to Australia, and by contrast the Asian bee I would regard as perhaps the worst exotic insect ever to establish in Australia. I would put it on a level with the screw-worm, and for that reason I believe no stone should be left unturned in our effort to eradicate it.

The major threat to Australia with the initial spread of the bee, as has been pointed out by Denis Anderson, is in biodiversity, human health and public amenity. Describing the Asian bee as a cane toad with wings and equating it to the European wasp I think is a valid comparison, but the real long-term threat of allowing the Asian bee to become endemic is that it will create the conditions for the entry of the bee mite Verroa jacobsoni. I think what we have to realise is that the prospect of Australia hosting both the Asian bee and either or both of the two verroa species presents a situation where we will destroy commercial beekeeping in this country. Paid pollination services to crops, such as almonds, currently are worth about $180 million a year, heading towards $500 million over the next few years. Crops like that will cease to be produced, and overall crops worth about $4 billion  will be put at risk.

When, say, the department says that the Asian bee is not eradicable, I believe this only has validity when you judge it against the resources that have been made available for the eradication program. If we accept that the bee represents a very serious threat to food security, biodiversity, human health and so on, and exports generally, then the amount of resources required to mount a credible eradication campaign seem well justified.

Looking at the scientific evidence, the only reports that I can see which relate to its not being eradicable is the one by Roger Paskin, who is a principal veterinary officer at the Victorian Department of Primary Industry. I believe his assessment is not trivial and demands careful consideration, but at the time of analysis I think it ignores the increased capability of the field team and new techniques. I think he is comparing the hive to something like a virus or a bacterium or an individual plant or, say, an animal. In the case of the bee, you have a hive with foragers who go out in all directions. If we look at new techniques such as baiting with fipronil, as Denis pointed out, I believe a comprehensive baiting program would result—true, in some collateral damage to say feral populations of mellifera, some native bees and so on—but the damage would, I believe, be contained and reversible once the Asian bee is eliminated. So I do believe, given the seriousness of the problem and the improved capability of that field team and techniques which have been tested and not put into play, that there is a good chance that we could eradicate the bee. And, as Denis pointed out, if in the first six or 12 months the evidence is clear that it is getting out of hand, you can cut your losses and pull out, but at least we would say that we gave it a damn good try.

ACTING CHAIR —Thank you. Mr Bourke?

Mr Bourke —The Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, of which I am chairman,  represents beekeepers, honey packers, queen bee breeders and crop pollinators in Australia. In my position I attended all the Consultative Committee on Emergency Animal Disease meetings—there were about nine or 11 of them—the Consultative Committee on Emergency Plant Pests meetings and also the national management group meetings. I am subject to the confidentiality agreement, but DAFF has put out a communique on 1 February where they listed the reasons for this decision and why the bee eradication is not technically feasible. In my opinion, as a beekeeper and with Denis Anderson’s input, it was not a scientific decision.

I can say that on 20 October Dr Denis Anderson was asked a question about how far this bee would come through Australia and colonise it, and he did answer it very well. I will just go back to what containment means. It  means that the states and the Commonwealth and the affected party, which is the beekeepers, would have to fund containing the bees where they are, but unfortunately it drops one state, which is Queensland, on their own. They would have to eliminate it or do what they could inside that RA. If we go onto containment, the rest of the country is not going to help one state.

Some of the things that came up over these talks were that they consider that it is a lot of money to pay for this. They complained about fire ants and how much that is costing the country, but we have only spent three million dollars. And CSIRO have written a paper to say that we should be spending $50 million a year to keep the verroa mite, and everything associated with it, out of our country. We have only spent three million dollars in three years and we have given up. I feel really ashamed about that because I was on the national management group when this decision came up. I would just like to read some of these silly ideas which are supposed to be technical decisions. One was that ‘Colony characteristics which favour long distance assistance spread on containers and vehicles’— that would apply to any bee; ‘the bees’ propensity to readily swarm’—yes, they do swarm a lot more than European honey bees; ‘difficulties to access from vegetation and terrain’—well, we must up our game and use fipronil and do things like that to eradicate this pest; and ‘the limitations of current surveillance methods.’ I cannot agree with any of those things. To me, they are saying that it was a scientific decision. I would say because the swarms were getting much younger it was a non-scientific decision and I am really ashamed to be in this position. It was not a consensus; not everybody agreed. It was 6:4—six states, including the Commonwealth, said no and four States said yes, we should continue to eradicate this pest.

ACTING CHAIR —Thank you. Have you any questions, Senator O’Brien?

Senator O’BRIEN —I think I have gleaned what I need from the evidence given so far. It is a clear view that more resources should be put into this. Does anyone have any idea why Roger Paskin came to the conclusion that he did? Would you like to offer us an opinion as to why he would have come to that conclusion?

Dr Whitten —In the conclusion of his paper he says, ‘The likelihood that hundreds of undetected hives continue to exist and multiply, combined with a surveillance system that is only able to detect, at the most, 30 per cent of these, means that the Asian honey bees will continue to spread undetected in Queensland. The incursion is not seen as eradicable.’

I see a problem with that, that he does not appreciate that the hive has foragers that go out in all directions and come back and if you strategically place bait stations around and they take back a slow-acting pesticide like fipronil, then you have a contagious effect in terms of eliminating those colonies. That technology, as Denis Anderson said, was tried and used effectively in the Solomons. It has only been trialled in Cairns but not put into place. I believe if you actually had a comprehensive bait program—I said before that it may have some collateral damage on the environment, but that would be totally reversible—it would create the real opportunity to eradicate the bees and therefore I think the conclusion may be appropriate for viruses, bacteria, plants and other animals, but not appropriate for the honey bee.

Mr Weatherhead —I would just make the comment that Dr Sergeant, when he presented his findings at the October meeting, said he had tried to do some modelling on it and he could not really set up a model that he was happy with. He said if you varied a couple of the inputs you would get a different answer each time. That sort of comment was made with Dr Paskin’s paper—that if you change some of the variables that he used then you may get a totally different answer to what he did. So they were not happy that they could set up a proper modelling system that would give them an answer.

Just to add to what Dr Whitten said, particularly with the trials with fipronil in Cairns, there are ways whereby, when you do administer the fipronil for the Asian bee to take back, you can exclude other insects and they do it quite successfully. Other native bees are quite successful at it and I have been up there and seen the ways that they can exclude it, so it is quite good. As well, the information has come out today that the odour-detecting dog up there has now been validated as another way of detecting the Asian bees, so that dog is now validated to be able to work on detection.

ACTING CHAIR —To go back to Dr Paskin’s report, do you know on what level of effort his final recommendation, that you have just read to us, was based? Was it based on the level of effort of what we currently have, which is a smaller number of people in the field, or the number of people we had in the field between April and October which was 40-odd to 50? Does that have an impact on what the perceptible outcome might be? My other question is: are we really using the tools that we effectively have at this point in time if we have only done a trial on the fipronil rather than using it comprehensively?

Dr Whitten —I am just looking at the tables on Dr Paskin’s report and I am assuming that this report is relevant to the decision. The critical information seems to have been collected between May and August. He draws a conclusion that the proportion of undetected colonies was increasing, and that may well be the case. But if you take into account that the field team was improving their capability and was about to put into place an entirely new approach, which Trevor Weatherhead just talked about with the fipronil, I believe that, while his report may be valid as far as it goes, if we put into place those new approaches then we would stand a good chance of eradication. The estimated cost is something like $5 million per year for two years. After, say, one year we will have collected enough data, as well as having made a serious attempt at eradication, to say whether it is working or whether we are wasting our time.

ACTING CHAIR —From the evidence we have heard so far today, there are variations in the input information and the data collection, which is also varying the inputs into the report; and that is impacting on the potential recommendations of the Paskin report.

Dr Whitten —Actually I think it is fair to say that all parties are using the same data in terms of the number of colonies detected and eliminated. It is then a question of different modelling. And, as I say, the models of Dr Paskin seem to be based on ones more appropriate for other organisms and not a colony, which sends out these tentacles in the form of foraging bees. So you can knock out a large number of colonies if you actually strategically place the baits to attract those foraging bees.

ACTING CHAIR —You mentioned the cost of $5 million a year for two years for an eradication process, potentially with a review after 12 months. Where has that data been prepared from?

Mr Weatherhead —There was a proposal asked for by the Queensland department to put forward the cost to continue the program on for six months, from the November period. The figure they put forward for that six months to collect that extra data was $2½ million, so doubling that gives you $5 million dollars a year. Personally I would expect that if we go into full eradication then we will be going for longer than two years because we will need a fair bit of time at the end for proof of freedom. It has been estimated that we will need about 18 months at least for proof of freedom at the end of that time, so that would have to be funded during that time.

So we are looking at a period longer than two years but certainly after 12 months I would think that we would have a good indication of whether or not we were being successful in eradication. So that is where that figure came from—the figures that were put up by the Queensland department to fund that six months, and that was at the full staffing level they had in November before they dismissed the casual staff.

Senator MILNE —Post the October meeting, when there was a discussion about needing to collect more data, we have now heard that the workforce on the ground was significantly cut. We were told by the department that that was because we were going into the wet season and it was not appropriate. Mr Weatherhead, can you just tell me when the workforce on the ground was cut, and what your view is of the department’s reasoning, which was that we were going into the wet season.

Mr Weatherhead —On 15 November the casual staff were dismissed, basically because the money that was allocated to the program ran out. The funding had been spent. Originally what had been allocated up to that time was to go through until the end of December but it did not go through until then, and it was to be looked at for continuing funding after that. On the reasons given, I think they said, ‘We are going into the wet season’. What used to happen in Cairns with the staff they had was that if they had wet days then they would go out into the shopping centres and do community engagement activities. They would set up a table with information leaflets in the shopping centres and they would engage the public there and talk to them. You would find that after the public had been engaged in this manner you would get more public calls that came in. But in the end I think it was found that the actual field surveillance of people out there gave the vast majority of detections—it was not the public response; but the public response was important. From my point of view, those staff could have been used in a reasonable manner. Even though you get the wet season up there—and I have lived up there—you do get days where you can go out and work quite successfully. The main reason it stopped was that the money ran out at that time.

Senator MILNE —I will just follow up on the money trail. When you say the money ran out, did you mean that the Commonwealth money ran out or the money allocated to the national management committee from all states et cetera? Can you just clarify what you meant there by ‘the money’?

Mr Weatherhead —I believe it was the primary industries ministerial council meeting in April 2010 that accepted the budget up until December 31st, and that amount of money was asked for to be allocated against the program. It was supposed to go through until December 31st but the money ran out. I think they ended up putting on more staff—they got enthusiastic and really were doing well there. It ran out at that time.

Senator MILNE —So basically the Commonwealth money ran out earlier than expected and that happened to coincide with the decision that it was not eradicable; is that correct?

Mr Weatherhead —Not quite, the breakdown was 80/20 for government to industry funding. The Commonwealth would have put up 40 per cent of that money, the states would have put up the other 40 per cent and industry was asked to put up 20 per cent, which we could not afford but we did put money into it. That is when the money ran out; at that stage there. It was the budget that ran out so all those parties contributed towards that particular budget for that year.

Senator MILNE —In your opinion, is the decision not to go for eradication a scientific decision or a financial decision? What would you say from your view of it on the ground?

Mr Weatherhead —I think it is more to do with an attitude of it being ‘not in my backyard’. It may be a case of, ‘It is in North Queensland. It’s not going to worry us.’ As I say on the scientific side of it, from my point of view it was a casse of one-all—there was one for and one against. So to me that was not a definitive suggestion as to why it could be. As I say, I think this may have been part of a ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome of people not wanting to contribute from there on in.

Senator MILNE —If a review were to take place and it was decided to have a go at eradication, are the people who were put-off in November still in the local area? Do you know? How quickly do you think you could put a team together again with some experience in this and with the poisoning experience et cetera?

Mr Weatherhead —Some of the staff who were laid off were put onto other programs, such as the electric ant program up there. I have asked that question myself and they said that hopefully they would get about 50 per cent of those people back onto the program again. They would then have to employ other people who they would need to train. If you get 50 per cent of those experienced people back in then you could usually work in teams of two out in the field, so you could put one of those with an inexperienced person and they could help train that person while at the same time using the expertise that had been built up in the previous year.

Senator MILNE —So how many people are currently working on the program? We have heard that the funding runs out altogether on March 31st. So what does that mean for on the ground right now?

Mr Weatherhead —There are 11 staff employed at the moment by the Queensland department who are paying for that, and the Queensland department have advised me that they are extending the contracts for those people through to June 30th. So there will be this limited response during that time if nothing else happens with the funding to put a full eradication program back in place. So there will be a response. I do not know whether that is part of the containment program. I do not think containment is really feasible. They use the excuse of saying that they can be transported on containers going out. Well, the same rationale would apply to a containment program. If they can do that with an eradication program then they can do it with a containment program so I think that is not a rationale to say that it is there. I would certainly be urging that the full eradication program come back in place. We have to give it a good go. We have got to try for the sake of what is out there in Australia—our biodiversity, the people, the industry and, in particular, food security. We have got to give it a go.

Senator MILNE —My final question goes to the floods and the cyclone and that sort of thing. Is there any evidence from the 11 people who are still on the ground as to the impact that the extreme weather event may have had in relation to the bees?

Mr Weatherhead —Speaking with people on the ground up there, they think that what has happened is that the Asian bee, while it would have had its nests in, say, trees or houses, will have survived but they think it has not gone into a swarming mode because the number of swarms that have been reported by the public now are less than it was back in October or November when there were better conditions. It seems to me that maybe we have had some sort of a holding pattern where there has been small amounts of swarming but nothing compared to what it used to be before. A lot of damage was done to crops and the ground flora up there, and it certainly has made the bees hungrier. It would be an excellent opportunity, with the Asian bees out foraging, to detect them quite easily as there are a limited number of foraging plants for them to work on. It would have made it very easy now to get out there and find a lot of those foraging Asian bees.

Senator MILNE —So there is maybe a heightened opportunity as a result of a tragic event, as it happens?

Mr Weatherhead —Yes, I would agree with that.

ACTING CHAIR —I suppose if they are foraging at that sort of rate, it also could enhance the capacity for a baiting program because they are a bit hungrier.

Mr Weatherhead —One of the things with a baiting program is to get enough bees onto your feeding station to take the poison back. With this particular bee in Cairns, you do not get a lot of them onto the feeding station. The one successful trial they did out at the Cairns Airport had about 50 bees feeding on it. They want to do some with about five, six or seven foraging bees, which is about what normally happens, to make sure that they take enough back to kill the nest and not just diminish it and enable it to survive. They want to do that and they feel that because of the way the bee works they would be able to do that.

ACTING CHAIR —We are going to have to wind the hearing up now because we have completed the time that the Senate has allotted to us. I thank the witnesses for their evidence. I also thank Hansard and broadcasting staff. There may be a couple of questions that come out on notice and we would appreciate your assistance with those.

Committee adjourned at 6.01 pm