The National Bee Pest Surveillance Program (NBPSP), coordinated by Plant Health Australia (PHA) and delivered by government agencies, serves as an early warning system using a range of surveillance methods to detect new incursions of exotic bee pests and pest bees.

Due to the diverse environments across Australia, surveillance techniques are fit-for-purpose and timing of inspections are tailored to different high-risk ports and pest types. For example, far northern ports, which are most likely to attract exotic Asian bee pests, employ different surveillance activities compared to the southern ports, where overseas populations of European honey bees pose a key threat.

Rainbow bee-eater pellet diagnostics were introduced to the NBPSP program in 2022, following its success in detecting Asian honey bees during the National Varroa Mite Eradication Program (NVMEP) in Queensland, which concluded in 2019. This technique is now employed in both Queensland and the Northern Territory to help mitigate the risk of Asian honey bee incursions.

Rainbow bee-eaters, who typically roost in large numbers at the same sites each night, between March and November each year, regurgitate pellets of indigestible prey fragments. These pellets can provide valuable samples of bees present in surrounding areas. By locating roosts, numerous pellets can be collected, and laboratory analysis can determine the presence of Asian honey bees by examining the forewings in the pellets. A single collection of pellets can contain hundreds of bees.

During 2023 the QLD Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) and the NT Department of Industry Tourism and Trade (NT DITT), respectively collected 30 and 18 rainbow bee-eater pellet samples, at ports as part of the NBPSP and no exotic bees were detected.

QDAF Senior Biosecurity Officer Roger Winton highlighted the value of rainbow bee-eater pellets as an effective tool for detecting Asian honey bees during the NVMEP.

“Over five years we collected 225,000 bird pellets which contained 1.6 million bee wings, of which 79 were identified as Asian honey bee wings,” Roger said.

“Once Asian honey bee wings have been identified, other surveillance methods are used to find the nest. The birds definitely helped us to achieve eradication.”

Karlee Foster, Bee Biosecurity Officer at NT DITT, noted the reliability of the rainbow bee-eater migration season in the Northern Territory’s Top End, along with the identification of suitable surveillance sites in Darwin.

“The birds migrate from Darwin each year in August and return in March after the Wet Season. Rainbow bee-eaters tend to roost at the same sites each year. The Plant Biosecurity Branch has been able to identify around 13 suitable sites in the Darwin area for this relatively simple and indicative method for potential exotic bee incursions,” Karlee said.

Ensuring the longevity and continued success of the NBPSP is pivotal in safeguarding the honey bee industry and those industries that benefit from honey bee pollination. Securing ongoing support to the NBPSP will be a focus as the project continues.

The NBPSP is funded by Hort Innovation using research and development levies of 14 horticultural industries, with significant co-investment from states and territories and contributions from the Australian Honey Bee Industry Levies, Grain Producers Australia and the Australian Government. The NBPSP is coordinated by Plant Health Australia and delivered by states and Northern Territory government.