With Australia having recently made the decision to move to management of Varroa destructor, following 15 months of eradication efforts, we look back on the early years of varroa in New Zealand with Jane Lorimer. The Waikato beekeeper was a fresh face on the National Beekeepers Association (NBA) executive at the time of incursion and moved up to be vice-president and then president, by 2003, as the industry body led beekeepers through some challenging years.
The date of April 11, 2000, is seared in Jane Lorimer’s mind. It’s the day beekeeping in New Zealand changed forever as varroa was discovered for the first time, in Auckland, setting off a tumultuous few years as the country grappled with the appropriate response. Looking back, another date springs to mind to – her birthday the previous year when she was fatefully seconded onto the NBA executive.
“Third of October. They rang me up and said, I want to know whether you're coming on to the executive by 10 o'clock tonight,” Lorimer recalls.
She had but six months in the role before they had to spring into action, acting as the beekeeping industry’s representatives in a brief eradication effort, then a management plan to slow varroa's spread. Australia is now following a similar path.
Response headquarters was initially a “dive” motel close to Auckland airport, where tensions were high. Lorimer based herself there and, among other beekeepers, helped Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) staff conduct delimiting surveys. Ensuring appropriate communications with beekeepers was the key role of the NBA at the time she says.
“I ended up spending months up there at the HQ, which was pretty demoralising. I was doing things like talking with South Island beekeepers and asking, if we killed off hives in the North Island would they be willing to supply hives to restock?” Lorimer says.
Delimiting surveys in the Auckland area showed significant presence of mites, but other areas of the country were free of the parasite and so hive movements were controlled in and out of the Auckland “infected” zone.
While there was a level of adrenalin to run on in the early days, after a while the work got demoralising.
“A lot of MAF guys got counselling during the time up there. The NBA personnel were up there and we didn't get offered anything. So, you know, it got pretty tough,” she reflects.
“It was pretty high stress, in general, for many people. A lot of beekeepers were asking ‘what are we going to do? We can't do anything because of the movement controls and we need to feed hives’. So it was pretty stressful at the headquarters.”
It wasn’t just her role with the NBA that was tough either, the majority of Lorimer’s own beehives were caught up in a movement-control area, while her business’s honey house was on the other side. Those movement control lines would move as the response changed and a key job of the NBA was organising meetings in various towns to keep beekeepers up to date with changing rules and educate on how to manage hives with varroa.
“We spent quite a bit of time in public meetings around the North Island talking with beekeepers. At least at that point in time we had a good branch network with the NBA. So, it was relatively easy to get hold of rural people,” Lorimer says.
By July of 2000, just three months after the initial discovery of varroa in New Zealand, further attempts at eradication on a national level were deemed not technically feasible by the Government and thus ruled out. That was the correct decision Lorimer says.
“We realised, after a while, that varroa just moved so much faster than what you thought it did, and that's what I've told the Australians. I had one meeting with them and I told them ‘it’s going to be beyond where you think it is’.”
That has indeed been the case in Australia, where the mite was first detected in New South Wales in June 2022 and extensive efforts to eradicate were made – including euthanising tens of thousands of managed and feral colonies – before further outbreaks of the mite were discovered across the state. The decision to move to management of varroa was made on September 20 this year.
Utilising movement control of hives, such as NSW is doing, was a valuable tool in the response on this side of the Tasman, Lorimer believes.
“I think for those who could get some benefit out of movement controls, it was probably worthwhile. I mean, it took till 2006 to get down to the South Island. So, it enabled the South Island beekeepers to actually start to prepare for varroa incursions. It was pretty hard on those of us who had varroa from day dot though, and had that expense without any experience.”
Beekeepers were lucky to have scientists with knowledge of the mite who were willing to educate others in Mark Goodwin and Michelle Taylor. The later has also been working closely with the Australian response, some 20 years later.
As well as encouraging the practical use of hive movement controls, Lorimer says the Australians should be focused on keeping deformed wing virus out of the country and on getting as many treatment options approved as possible.
While beekeepers in ‘The Lucky Country’ might not be feeling so lucky at present, Lorimer believes they might be luckier than most in that the later incursion of varroa compared to most of the rest of the world means they are closer to new technologies – such as the RNAi work being conducted at Victoria University of Wellington – potentially providing more answers to the problem of varroa. And there is one more thing in their favour, Lorimer says.
“The Australians have at least got us to learn from.”