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Repoort: Asian Honeybee - Possible Environmental Impacts

Monday, August 15, 2011:

Executive Summary: This report reviews current scientific literature to determine what is known about the possible impacts of Asian honeybees (Apis cerana) on the Australian environment. The report was commissioned by the Australian Government (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Population, Water and Communities) to provide information for decision‐makers and policy officers seeking to influence environmental biosecurity. Close to 100 references were reviewed and stored in an Endnote biobliographic database.

Four key questions guided the collection of evidence to inform decision‐making:

  • What do we know about Apis cerana - as a species, and in terms of their distribution, ecology, biology and incursion into Australia to date?
  • What do we know about other bees ecology, biology, etc?
  • What do we know about Apis mellifera impacts on Australian environments?
  • How do the species compare/interact and what can we learn about the comparison regarding potential impacts of Apis cerana on Australian environments? 

Apis cerana is one of the species of social honeybees which demonstrate both individual and colony behaviour ‐ a key to maximising invasion potential. Literature indicates that Apis cerana exhibits a great deal of ‘plasticity’ in its biology and ecology across its geographical range. Thus the biology and ecology attributed to A. cerana at one location in Asia does not mean that those attributes will apply to A. cerana at other locations. Most published literature on Apis cerana has been written in the context of it being an endemic (native) bee in the context of introduced Apis mellifera species. This may not apply to the genotype of Apis cerana currently inhabiting the Cairns region of far north Queensland. Literature reviewed covers Apis cerana’s distribution, description, floral references, colony size, defense behaviours, flight patterns, swarming behaviours, nesting, parasitic mites and a brief overview of the current incursion.

Australian native bees differ significantly to the Apis honeybees in that they are mainly solitary bees. Australia also has 10 native species of stingless social bees. There is some evidence of potential environmental impacts arising from introductions of Bombus terrestris (bumble bees) and Apis mellifera (Euopean honeybees). 

The impact of exotic honeybees (Apis mellifera and Bombus terrestris) on the Australian environment is comparatively poorly understood in relation to their (positive) impact on productivity and agriculture. Feral honeybee impacts on Australian ecosystems are controversial but may include competition with native fauna for floral resources or nesting sites, inadequate pollination of native flora or undesirable pollination of exotic flora. Literature reviewed has been classified as describing interactions between honeybees and plants (floral resources), ii) interactions between honeybees and vertebrates and iii) interactions between honeybees and native bees.

There is very little (if any) published evidence of the environmental impact of Apis cerana. In Asia, where the species has been established for thousands of years, it is not labelled as an invasive species and therefore its environmental ‘impact’ has not been questioned. Given the invasion is relatively recent and there are no published studies of its environmental impact to date, actual impact of A. cerana on the Australian environment can therefore only be assessed given the (limited) data and careful observations of the Biosecurity Queensland Surveillance Manager and other experienced field officers. However, sufficient is known about Australian plant and animal communities to safely state that it is false to suggest Apis cerana will never have negative effects on nature conservation, just as it is false to suggest that they will have serious negative impacts in all circumstances. 

Adherence to the precautionary principle around management of Apis cerana is recommended. Management recommendations include:

  • establishing and maintaining Apis cerana‐free and A. cerana ‐control areas with appropriate buffer zones;
  • classifying natural habitat into A, cerana-free, A. cerana control or A. cerana affected areas for differential management of key native species;
  • controlling A. cerana populations via baiting; and
  • recording key observations of all A. cerana colonies/swarms in a centralised database. 

One key area for future research is to determine where and when the risk of negative environmental impact from Apis cerana is highest such that limited resources are directed to areas of maximum return. Five recommendations for research priorities are suggested.

Download the entire report here.

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