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Bee scientist gets a mite desperate

Bee Expert, Dr Denis Anderson, with some of his bees at Gungahlin.

Bee Expert, Dr Denis Anderson, with some of his bees at Gungahlin. Photo: Rohan Thomson

THE Australian scientist who helped discover what was killing the world's honey bees believes he may be on the brink of working out how to stop it - if he can just convince people to listen.

Denis Anderson was awarded the 2007 CSIRO medal for his work in spreading awareness of the varroa destructor mite, a parasite that sucks the blood of European honey bees and has caused widespread carnage to honey bee populations around the world.

The mite has spread to all major honey harvesting countries except Australia, including New Zealand, and is rated one of the nation's greatest biosecurity threats.

But Dr Anderson, who identified and named the mite, has left the CSIRO out of frustration and says he has been forced to rely on cash from selling women's sandals to continue his research because the CSIRO is unwilling to put money into solving the problem.

"The product we are after is a bee resistant to the mite, whether we manufacture that bee or select it naturally," Dr Anderson said.

Research has found the mite relies on a chemical signal from the bee to trigger its breeding cycle. By manipulating that signal without harming the bee, Dr Anderson believes it is possible to trick the mite into not laying eggs and therefore not reproducing.

"But to get to that end-product you need all this research, and the CSIRO is not interested in funding that."

Dr Anderson said Australia was in a race to find a solution as the mite's arrival was inevitable. There have already been several close calls, including last year when thousands of Asian honey bees carrying the mite were discovered on a foreign ship berthed in Sydney.

The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation estimates it would cost the Australian industry $72.3 million a year over 30 years if the mite becomes established.

CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences chief Dan Walker said there was a range of work continuing at the CSIRO on bees and the varroa mite, but it was not possible to fund all forms of research.

"The CSIRO has invested significantly in varroa mite research over the past 23 years, inclusive of the research undertaken by Dr Anderson on switching off the ability of the varroa mite to breed,'' Dr Walker said. "We have advanced the knowledge significantly over this period, but as with many other areas of research undertaken by the CSIRO we rely on industry co-investment to take research through to many applied solutions. In this case, industry funding has not been forthcoming."

Dr Anderson said it would take about five years and $10 million to find the chemical switch and a way of changing it to stop the mite breeding, but it was highly achievable and would be a breakthrough for agriculture around the world.

Having given up on the CSIRO to put money into the required research, Dr Anderson has started appealing to the corporate sector, and he has initial support, including from a West Australian fashion business called myhoneybees.com .au, which is providing a portion of sales proceeds.

Dr Anderson is working to establish a foundation to fund research by universities and PhD students in the area he hopes will lead to the production of a bee resistant to the mite.

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