There are several species of feral bees in Australia. The main ones are the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), the Bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) in Tasmania, and the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) in Queensland.
European honey bee
Copyright: Denis Anderson
European honey bees have been present in Australia for about 190 years, but their distribution and abundance has increased dramatically over the last 80 years. The actual number of feral colonies is unknown but they are patchily distributed being least abundant, if not absent, from alpine areas and inland areas away from water. European honey bees visit the flowers of at least 200 Australian plant genera and interact with a wide diversity of native flower-visiting animals.
Feral European honey bees may out compete native fauna for floral resources, may disrupt natural pollination processes and may displace endemic wildlife from tree hollows. However, there is insufficient research about interactions between European honey bees and Australian biota to fully describe their impacts.
Managed hives of European honey bees form the basis of an industry that provides significant crop pollination services around Australia. Pollination services and the production of honey and associated bee products were estimated by the House of Representatives Inquiry into the Future Development of the Australian Honey Bee Industry as between $4 and $6 billion in 2008.
Copyright: David Baldwin
Bumble bees were introduced to Tasmania in 1992. The feral populations have spread from sea level to 1450 metres in altitude and have a high level of ecological versatility. In other countries where it has been introduced, it forages on both native and introduced plant species. Because the bumble bee forages on a wide variety of plant species it is likely that it will have an impact, both directly and indirectly, on the Australian environment to some degree.
Other pollen and nectar gathering species include birds, bats, marsupials and a range of native arthropods but this niche overlap for floral resources does not necessarily indicate competition. In Tasmania, a study by Hingston and McQuillan (1999) found that bumble bees competed for a limited pollen resource with two species of native Megachilidae bees causing a displacement of the native bees.
The potential impact of the bumble bee on both native and introduced plants is associated with its flower preferences. The bumble bee is a generalist feeder and has been recorded as feeding on both native and introduced plants, although it is unclear what impact it has on native pollination systems. With respect to introduced species, including declared noxious weeds, its pollination activity can enhance seed set. Thus the potential exists for the conversion of minor "sleeper" weeds into major environmental problems.
Bumble bees cannot be imported to Australia and are prohibited by state legislation from being moved from Tasmania to other states or territories.
Asian honey bee
Copyright: Denis Anderson
The Asian honey bee, Apis cerana, is the third smallest of the nine species of honey bee and is generally smaller than the European honey bee. The Asian honey bee has a native range throughout Asia. In 2007, an incursion of the Asian honey bee was found in Cairns, Queensland. Attempts to eradicate it have been unsuccessful and it was declared not able to be eradicated in 2011. A containment program has begun to restrict its spread and minimise its impacts across public health, social amenity, the apiary industry, and those industries reliant on bees for pollination services.
Asian honey bees can act as individuals or as part of the colony and this trait allows them to be highly flexible when challenged with different environmental conditions. This makes them successful invasive insects. They tend to forage from numerous minor sources of nectar and pollen rather than a major source such as a crop. They are non-specialist in their nest sites with many cavity types used, and they will desert their nests readily in response to a food shortage, attack or disease outbreak.
The Department commissioned a review of current scientific literature to determine what is known about the possible impacts of Asian honey bees on the Australian environment. The report considered what we know about the Asian honey bee as a species, their overseas distribution, ecology, and biology. There is also a comparison with what we already know about the European honey bee and the bumble bee and what we can learn about the comparison regarding potential impacts of the Asian honey bee on the Australian environment.
The main conclusion of the review was that, as with other feral honey bees, the Asian honey bee may have a negative but unquantified impact on the environment, most likely associated with competition for native fauna for floral resources or nesting sites, inadequate pollination of native flora or undesirable pollination of exotic flora.
The Australian Government provided financial support for a nationally cost-shared program aimed at eradicating the Asian honey bee from north Queensland. In 2011-12 and 2012-13, a further $2 million will be provided to support a pilot of a national transition to management program aimed at creating an ongoing solution to the management of Asian honeybees
Further information about the national response to the Asian honey bee can be found at the National pest and disease outbreaks website: www.outbreak.gov.au.