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Townsville’s Pest Management – Show me the honey!

The walk is idyllic. While there’s an inclination to describe it as peaceful, in reality, it is anything but quiet. Townsville’s Palmetum is home to a symphony of bird calls, insect warnings and the rustling leaves that sound like breaking waves. With the Palmetum’s natural orchestra playing with intensity, you can begin your walk through the grounds. Except that you can’t. An ugly warning sign is plastered on temporary fencing. “PATHWAY CLOSED”. There’s an explanation on a smaller notice to the side, “NOTICE. Flying foxes may carry disease. The path will re-open when the flying foxes have been managed.” This is not Townsville’s only ongoing ‘nature management’ effort. The walk alongside Ross River’s wetlands in Annandale is awe-inspiring; the mango trees are starting to fruit and the suggestions of summer are very real. Unfortunately, the blinding white tarpaulin sheets are also extremely real.

Pathway closed at the Palmetum.

Townsville provides two current case studies for minimising health and biosecurity risks. The Palmetum hosts the better-known example, flying fox management, a perennial ‘pest’ problem in Townsville. They pose social, environmental and health challenges due to their ability to carry the Hendra and bat lyssavirus. They move from park to park with no solution offering long-term guarantees, only the promise of temporary relief from these pests.

In contrast with the long-standing flying fox issue, the Ross River’s banks are home to a lesser-known but equally alarming example, biosecurity management of honey bees. The simple ‘white plastic sheets’ resting under beehives belie the problem’s severity. The sheets are waiting for bees to drop dead; suffering destruction from the inside out. Earlier this year, varroa jacobsoni mites were identified on Asian honey bees near the Townsville port. Until then, Australia had managed to escape the expanding influence of varroa mites: varroa jacobsoni and the suitably-named more damaging species, varroa destructor. While ‘varroa destructor’ is only two words, they are capable of striking fear into the hearts of Australia’s beekeepers.

Human desire to have everything at our fingertips and ‘carefully’ exploit the environment is putting our biosecurity and collective health at risk, soaking up misdirected funding and placing extreme demands upon government health and biosecurity officers. Current management seeks to integrate social, health and agricultural considerations, but outcomes can sometimes come at the cost of another, and that’s without even considering financial costs. Community-demanded management is another example of humans always wanting more. It’s never enough to have a park, it has to be a park that Goldilocks herself would consider ‘juuust right’.

The procedure and red tape of management might seem an abstract topic, but humans are at the core of decisions and processes. Human links to flying foxes are simple. They can directly or indirectly transmit diseases that are health risks to humans, but they also have damaging social impacts. The Palmetum is next to a retirement home and the consequences are not confined to health risks. Joan is a retirement home resident who now sits at her window, only able to gaze at the Palmetum rather than walk amongst the trees. “I get that risks are low but the fear is deep inside my mind. And they smell disgusting too.” Before the flying fox fence, walking was some residents’ daily highlight.

The health risk of flying foxes encourages people to ask, “what’s so deadly about bees?” Most human recollections involving bees trace back to naïve interactions where hands came off second-best when trying to touch and understand what these buzzing creatures were. From that point on, the divide was established. Us versus the bees. Except it’s not like that at all. The mite-infested bees nor the mites themselves aren’t lethal to humans, but the mites could threaten something humans care even more about than health… our food.

A bee does what bees do best.

Bees contribute an extraordinary amount to a vast majority of the $30 billion (Australian Farm Institute) of plant-based food that we produce, consume and export. They are thought to pollinate between one third and one half of Australia’s nearly $2 billion a year crop pollinising industry. The varroa mites are lethal to the European honey bee, which has been central to Australian honey production and crop pollination, and wreak multibillion-dollar havoc with our agricultural industry if they are not contained.

Europe in the 70s, the USA during the 80s, and New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia through the 2000s all witnessed Asian honey bees and their mite companions arrive and subsequently destroy local wild bee populations. Australia is exposed to genuine mite infestation risk from our neighbours. But our proximity to Asia also provides Australia with the golden opportunity to work collaboratively with research institutes and governments to find a solution.

Townsville is such a close trading port to Asia and is described as a gateway city. Although Townsville’s port is its greatest strength for growth, it could be its greatest weakness for biosecurity. As one of Australia’s most northern connections for Asian trade, there has been (and will continue to be) many opportunities for bees to arrive in cargo or on ships. In this globalised world, there isn’t a way to prevent biosecurity threats from crossing our borders, but it demonstrates the costs of all our international connections. But global ties are not our only worry.

The current Townsville City Council plan to manage flying foxes involves smoke, vegetation modification, pots and pans (no, really…), starter pistols and a falconry expert. Flying fox management is complicated as it must legally comply with guidelines set by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage protection. A representative for Townsville’s Community Health and Environment Committee articulated the challenging balancing act. “As a local regional council with limited resources, we have to weigh-up what we can spend our money on. We don’t have the millions that a Melbourne or Sydney council might have lying around.” With limited resources in mind, ratepayers should be concerned that there is no scientific guarantee that any funds will help the flying foxes will stay away.

Gerardo Martin, a JCU researcher studying the Hendra transmission from flying foxes to horses, weaves his explanation together with endless threads of studies and researchers. “In 2016, Giles’ team found…” and “my own research indicates…” are phrases that punctuate our conversation. The current deterrence methods might get flying foxes out of trees, but Mr Martin explains that nothing stops them coming back in the future.

“The community wants their parks to be free from flying foxes, but if they aren’t in one park, they’ll move to another. Or if not parks they’ll be in backyards. If not backyards, they’ll be roosting over horses causing more trouble.” The simple translation is that council is allocating money to activities that have no proven science to support long-term effectiveness and could also put more horses’, and subsequently humans’, lives at risk.

Flying foxes depart at sunset over Townsville.

Although moving flying foxes out of parks achieves social and some environmental benefits, Mr Martin’s encyclopaedic knowledge leads him suggest that the deterrence methods may result in more cases of Hendra spillover from flying foxes to horses. “Horse owners need to be really careful with their feeding and watering practices now that the flying foxes are being ‘helpfully encouraged’ to leave their urban roosts.” The virus, most likely transmitted from bat excrement into food or water sources, can cripple powerful horses that seem capable of withstanding anything.

Public resistance to euthanising flying foxes means harassment methods remain the preferred management approach. Another method has relied on the council translocating nesting Rufous owls, but this management strategy is biologically flawed. One owl pair cannot deter thousands of flying foxes but the owls are competitive and simply won’t inhabit the same areas. Another example of well-intended but misplaced funding.

While the funding for flying foxes is misplaced, the funding for bee management is severely limited. The mites found around Townsville Port earlier this year where detected under a management and prevention strategy that involves checking sentinel hives around the port only every two months. Although this process meets necessary regulations for protection, foreign bees can clearly slip between the gaps of these biosecurity measures and leave our agricultural industry at risk.

There’s no easy mite or bee-detector, so detecting mite-infested bees requires work or volunteer hours. The biosecurity teams rely on enthusiast beekeepers to help in the detection and identification process. A technique called bee-lining is used to track the bees. John Richards is a community apiarist and his diligence is unparalleled. “I see the gap I fill. It’s just not practical for government officers to be checking all possible hives.” John works meticulously with his hands to establish miniscule false flower set-ups with millimetre precision that will enable him to track bees.

John’s efforts are admirable but this serves as a reminder that the front-line response to a major threat to our agriculture relies on amateur beekeepers’ efforts. A funding and technology gap to more accurately detect and eradicate pest bees is currently not being filled. Dr David Guez from JCU studies zoology and society’s interactions with zoology. “Australia needs to increase our planned responses for when varroa do arrive.” Dr Guez's suggestions tie in to a report from the Australian Farm Institute that advocates the need for a Plant Biosecurity research body.

Until that research body becomes reality, there’s nothing specific in the pipeline for tracking bees but there are some gradual improvements. Dr Lori Lach, an ecological researcher at James Cook University, studied bee behaviour using tiny radio backpacks that have been glued onto bees. “The technology worked perfectly on such a small scale but you need sensors within centimetres of the backpacks, so it’s not practical for tracking bees from unknown hives quite yet.”

Public concern seems to shrink along with the size of the threat. The varroa mite management is mostly limited by technical challenges to rapidly detect and track such a miniscule pest, in comparison with public demands about where flying foxes should or shouldn’t be. Although radio frequency technology might not be the holy grail for bee detection just yet, it signifies that technology is shrinking and understanding of bee behaviour is increasing.

Australia maintains an adequate capacity to manage and react to the varroa threat. Although limiting the chance of the varroa mite taking hold is still an important effort, practically coping with its existence in the future is necessary. Horticulture Innovation Australia are investing $13 million to research alternative agricultural pollination if the varroa destructor is able to inflict significant damage on our bee populations.

Both bee and flying fox examples embody the human desire for control over our surrounding environment. Humans strive to have the best of everything for minimal cost to ourselves; to enjoy parks, free pollination, honey and keep horses and humans healthy. Returning to the peaceful walks that were interrupted by signs of management and precautionary measures reminds us that no matter how much control we try to exert over our surrounding environment, some pathways will remain closed. Alternative paths will come from better allocation of funding into breeding, robotics and disease management research to keep our agriculture and health in a positive place.


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