The USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) hasn't, as far as I know as of Sunday, made a decision on whether to allow Australian honey bees to continue to be sent to the U.S. or not. We reported on this issue a few days ago when it finally came to light that it was the worst kept secret in two hemispheres that a new species of honey bee had been discovered in Australia as long ago as May, 2007. That bee, Apis cerana, is otherwise known as the Asian honey bee. We have what is known as the European honey bees.
Now there's not really a problem with this bee in and of itself. They are smaller than our European honey bees, and they are pretty easy to tell apart. Except there's this trade contract we have with Australia that says that if they have it, they can't send bees to the U.S. It's that simple.
What the U.S. is really worried about is not these new bees so much as the pests and predators that come along with these new citizens of that country. What viruses, diseases and other nasties lurk within is what everybody is worried about ... well, there are some other issues. Like, what is Australia doing at all its other ports to make sure this won't happen somewhere else; what is the beekeeping industry in that area; how are the captured bees being analyzed and for what problems; and how confident, really, are the Australians that they have contained the spread of this new bee?
Since this first broke however, lots of information has come to light. First off, we've known they've been there for a year or so but for some reason this just now came up as a problem. During that year they've identified many different colonies in many different locations, all in the far north of the country, about 1,800 miles or so from where the bees are raised that are sent to the U.S. DNA tests show that all these colonies originated from a single stowaway swarm aboard one lone yacht. So the original incursion seems to be fairly minor.
They've also tested these bees for a variety of viruses. It seems they already have some that exist in both Australia and the U.S. but what remains to be seen is what other, if any, viruses they have. But how do you find a virus if you don't know what to look for? The conventional way is decidedly limited in finding new viruses, but the new techniques developed by the U.S. Army and the BeeAlert Lab in Montana have that skill down pat. Maybe they can send some of those bees along to see if they can find anything. Wouldn't that make sense?
U.S. Beekeepers have been heard from, that's for certain. I haven't counted heads but it seems the majority of U.S. beekeepers are inclined to want Australian bees to stay in Australia for the time being, at least until there are no more unknowns about them. Of course there are bee businesses that have been built on the availability of these bees early in the season and would be in trouble if the Aussie bee faucet were shut. They use these bees themselves for pollination early in the season and maybe for additional pollination jobs later. They may also sell them to other beekeepers after the almond season to use for honey production or additional pollination jobs. Or they may just sell them to other beekeepers to replace winter (or CCD) losses, or to increase their holdings.
Farmers who need honey bees ... regardless of origin... are mixed in their responses. If their beekeeper promised (and perhaps has already signed a contract )pollinating bees for their crops this spring, knowing they were to be Aussie bees just like last year that did just fine, but now may not be able to get them... then that farmer has a problem when the flow stops. You know where he or she stands on this trade issue.
The APHIS folks are inclined to consider bigger picture here and, unless something deadly is found, they tend to look at quarantines to limit the movement of unwanted organisms. One official laid out a plan that was felt to be reasonable which said that they would establish a quarantine line 100 miles away from and around any apiary found to contain these new bees that would last two years. If enforced, this, they felt, would be sufficient to contain any of these bees, and give the Australians additional time to find and eradicate the remaining nests of these foreign bees.
But since APHIS hasn't said anything yet we don't know what the decision is to be. This doesn't mean that lobbying one way or the other has stopped for goodness sake. Pressure is on APHIS, on the National Beekeeping Groups, on the almond board, on local and national level politicians, on almost anybody who has any skin in this game to go this way or that way. And maybe APHIS has already decided and implemented a plan without notice ... after all, that's what they were going to do originally.
Here's my two cents worth on this. My history on nuclear disarmament is fuzzy, but when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in the heat of it Ronald Reagan came up with the phrase ... Trust, but Verify. That makes a whole lot of sense to me on the biological issues of trade. We should trust the Australians to test and examine and inspect their bees to make sure they are as clean as we want them to be before they are sent. But why on earth is it restraint of trade (a punishable offense) to run tests ourselves when they get off the plane? We can now do virus checks in less than a day, mite checks the same, so that's no longer a hold up. And the cost... the importer (and thus the ultimate customer, the beekeeper) takes care of all of this, with some provision that says that if anything is found that shouldn't be there the exporter pays for everything, and the bees are destroyed or returned. APHIS says they have neither the resources or capacity to do this however, so it would have to be a third party inspection, which isn't all bad.
The honey bees coming into California from Texas go through tests 100 times more rigorous checking for fire ants because California doesn't (rightly) want them. In fact, they let Arizona do the tests for them. But this is just California's rules. Bees with unknown or dangerous diseases that come into the U.S. can destroy entire industries, not just California's ... the whole U.S. beekeeping industry, the whole of U.S. insect pollinated agriculture is at stake, and the way it is now, there's nothing we can do to stop it. Beekeepers and other important voices have yelled from the roof tops when the bees were first allowed in to do this, but the law makers didn't listen. Maybe they will now.
Am I missing something? Probably. But too often the best ways to carry things off are the simplest. And this seems pretty simple to me.
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