Honey bee drone

Australian Bee Observation Network

Helping honey bees to help themselves.

Varro mites (Varroa destructor) are the foremost cause of western honey bee (Apis mellifera) population collapses. Western honey bees are native to Europe, West Asia and Africa, but humans have spread them worldwide. Though a non-native species, they perform key pollination functions in our ecosystems, and are the most important pollinators for almost all fruits, nuts, and berries. Originally native to an Asian honey bee, Varroa mites have jumped hosts and have spread worldwide, devastating western honey bees in the process. They do this by spreading viruses that lead to population collapses after a few years. To find out more, watch a one-minute video summary of the Varroa biology.

What we are doing

Varroa has swept through the world in the 1980s-2000s, and Australia is the last continent to fall victim. Right now, we have a much better understanding of Varroa biology and impacts, as well as superior technology, and we can leverage them to fight the mites.

In particular, honey bees living in the bush ('feral honey bees'), appear to develop resistance to Varroa, but the mechanisms by which they do this remain poorly understood. As a result, breeding this resistance into commercial honey bee strains has been difficult.

The Australian Bee Observation Network (ABON), which is a project of the ANU Bee Lab, aims to collect pre-Varroa data on feral genetic diversity and to follow the impact of Varroa in Australia. Our goals are:

  1. To collect genetic data from feral honey bees before, during and after the arrival of Varroa.
  2. To monitor the spread of Varroa in Australia.
  3. To monitor the diversity and spread of Varroa-borne viruses.
  4. Ultimately, to locate surviving feral honey bee populations and to identify resistance mechanisms.

Become a citizen scientist

Varroa is going to be a continent-wide problem that will play out during the next several years. Collecting data on this scale is beyond the capacities of a single institution, and we are looking for a network of citizen scientists who can help collect the material. Collecting dones is fun, and you can see how to do it here:

If you would like to get involved, or would like more information, please email abon@anu.edu.au or contact Professor Sasha (Alexander) Mikheyev at +61 2 6125 2467.

Do a Ph.D.

We have two funded Ph.D. projects available via the CSIRO iPhD program, which come with a generous stipend and research funds. One of the projects involves data analysis from the ABON project, and the other aims to breed native stingless bees to become better pollinators. If you are an Australian/New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, please contact the chief investigator, Alexander Mikheyev.

Write your local member of parliament

In addition to the principal aims of ABON, there are multiple urgent research questions that need to be addressed, which we simply don’t have the resource to tackle. For example, how will native forests respond to the loss of their dominant pollinators? Will honey bee viruses spread into other insects? Time-sensitive work on these and other projects also requires pre-Varroa data. If you live in NSW, you can write your local MP asking for investment into bee health research lab at the Department of Primary Industries following the model provided by other countries. We have prepared a convenient website and letter template, which you can use to make your voice heard with a few clicks.

Frequently Asked Questions

Aren’t honey bees invasive? Will their collapse be good for the ecosystem?

Yes, honey bees are not native, and it is possible that native bees will benefit from their decline. However, to what extent native pollinators can replace honey bees, and the how that will affect forests adapted to honey bee pollination remains unclear. 

There are no native bees that can replace honey bees for pollination in the short term. Our croplands are made up almost entirely of other non-native species, and honey bees have been bred for decades to become efficient pollinators in our agroecosystems. A massive effort will be necessary to breed native bees to fill this gap. If you are interested and are an Australian/New Zealand citizen or permanent resident with a first-class honours or masters, we have a Ph.D. student position available to work on this line of research.

What will happen to the honey bees in Australia?

In the short-term managed honey bees will be treated with pesticides to keep Varroa down, as in other countries. This is a labour intensive and expensive option, and the mites can evolve resistance. In parallel, we will need to breed resistant honey bee strains, but that will take many years. In the short term, we will have disruptions to pollination and likely job losses in the beekeeping industry.

What is a drone congregation area?

When they reach adulthood, honey bee queens go on a single nuptial flight, mating and storing sperm for the rest of their lives. Honey bee males (drones) hang out at specific location waiting to mate with a queen. These are known as drone congregation areas (DCAs). There are often hundreds or thousands of drones attending each DCA. Queens mate with a dozen or more drones in quick succession. DCAs are constant from year to year, and allow queens (and us) to sample genetic diversity from about a 2-3 km radius.

Why not just sweep up some foragers with a net?

Bees found on a single patch of flowers will often be from the same nest, and we want maximum genetic diversity.

How can we collect drones? 

The ANU Bee Lab will provide a queen pheromone bait that that can be tied to a helium balloon suspended from fishing line. See video here. The balloon needs to be sufficiently large, ideally at least 60cm in diameter and can be suspended from fishing line, e.g., with a toy fishing rod. Once drones are attracted, the balloon needs to be lowered quickly and they can be swept up by a butterfly net and put into ethanol.

When is a good time to find drones?

This may vary seasonally and geographically, but in NSW, drones are most active after 2-4:30PM on clear, warm, not-too-windy days. Generally, the temperature should be below 36C, wind speed less than 15km/h, and no chance of rain. The drone season tapers off into the fall and starts up in the spring.

Where are drone congregation areas found? 

Drones use a combination of vision and pheromone sensing to locate queens, so they typically found in clearings with a good line of sight. The location of the actual DCA) within a clearing may be limited to just a few square meters within a given clearing (and can shift over the course of a day), and you might need to search for it. The DCAs are located 15-25 meters above the ground, and drones lose attraction to the lure quickly below 10 m. Often, though not always, it is in the centre. Consequently, areas with too much open space, make it difficult to locate the DCA. An ideal space is a sports oval surrounded by natural habitat and away from apiaries. For example, here is a photo of the that’s surrounded by high-quality woodland. 

Seaforth Oval in Sydney
Seaforth Oval in Sydney

By contrast, despite hours of searching, we could never locate a DCA in the extensive network of clearings at the nearby Pennant Hills sports complex. There are almost certainly DCAs there, but locating them will be tricky. And sometimes, for reasons known only to the honey bees, drone will simply not be there on a certain day!

Pennant Hills sports complex
Pennant Hills sports complex

As an alternative to using a balloon, sampling can be done with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, aka a drone), with the lure suspended about 4 meters below the rotors. The UEV makes it much easier to position the lure, but is more dangerous, so, if you have a drone, please make sure you are following Civil Aviation Safety Authority guidelines for its operation!

Will I get stung?

Fun fact: the stinger is an evolutionary modification of the ovipositor, used by female insects to lay eggs. So, males don’t have a stinger and can’t sting you. There is a small chance that you might catch a worker or queen bee while out drone hunting, but this is not substantially more likely than if you were to go out and spend time in the oval doing other things.