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Honey bee genetic program extended

Biosecurity

University of Sydney Project Lead, Nadine Chapman says the extension allows the Plan Bee program to launch a series of planned initiatives that could have immeasurable long-term impact to the quality of Australia’s honey bee stocks.

 

The Australian apple industry is among the beneficiaries of the extension of the Plan Bee program, which is working towards the development of better bees. 

Australia will continue to be home to a national honey bee genetic program until at least April 2024, with the current national program, named Plan Bee, to continue its operations in its current form until April 2024. 

The extension, announced in mid-June, means that the program, delivered as part of the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s Rural R&D for Profit Program, will continue its mission of establishing a national honey bee genetic database to improve the productivity and profitability of Australia’s agricultural sector through better pollination outcomes. 

This is great news for apple orchardists, many of whom rely on honey bees for pollination. And although several projects have worked towards securing the future of pollination, by understanding alternative pollinators, it remains true that for most apple orchards in Australia, pollination is dependent upon a single species – the European honey bee (Apis mellifera). 

Plan Bee, which began in 2020, has made significant progress in furthering the adoption of modern genetic selection practices in Australia. The program allows bee breeders to identify which traits are most important to them and their customers and produce queens which are most likely to carry these traits. These traits could range from temperament, through to pollination productivity. 

Although the project has been set back by several disasters, including the 2019–20 bushfires, flooding in eastern Australia and most recently the NSW Varroa mite incursion, it continues to work towards the development of better bees for all of Australian agriculture. 

The extension allows the program to launch a series of planned initiatives that could have immeasurable long-term impact to the quality of Australia’s honey bee stocks, including in their ability to pollinate apple and pear crops during pest incursion and natural disaster events. That’s according to University of Sydney Project Lead, Nadine Chapman. 

“Whether it be pollination productivity, resistance to disease, or ability to stay active for longer, genetic selection helps bee breeders, beekeepers and growers to become more productive and sustainable,” Nadine said. 

“Each year we are faced with new challenges, whether that be disasters, pest incursions or the simple premise of feeding more people with fewer resources. Better bees can help us face these challenges head on, and thanks to modern genetic practices we’re on the right path.” 

The benefits of a successful national genetic program transcend the honey bee industry. In fact, around 65 per cent of agricultural production in Australia depends on pollination from honey bees according to the 2010 report Pollination Aware – The Real Value of Pollination in Australia (https://agrifutures.com.au/wp-content/uploads/publications/10-081.pdf).  

This work is a first for the Australian honey bee industry and the project extension will enable the industry to develop estimated breeding values for honey bees and further extend best-practice standardised selection methods for breeders, meaning better, more efficient bees for the apple industry, among others. 

The program is currently in the process of developing a business plan to ensure that the work being undertaken by this project can continue into the future and that the Australian honey bee industry continues to reap the benefits of modern genetic practices. 

Any apple growers who want to learn more about the program, and how they can benefit should contact Nadine Chapman at the University of Sydney ([email protected]). 

Acknowledgement 

Plan Bee (National Honey Bee Genetic Improvement Program) is supported by funding from the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry as part of its Rural Research and Development for Profit program. The project is further supported by AgriFutures Australia, the Department of Regional NSW, University of Sydney, University of New England Animal Genetics and Breeding Unit, Better Bees WA Inc, Wheen Bee Foundation, Costa Group, Olam, Beechworth Honey, Monson’s Honey and Pollination, South Pacific Seeds, Australian Queen Bee Breeders Association, Australian Honey Bee Industry Council, and commercial beekeepers. 

 

This article was first published in the Spring 2023 edition of AFG.

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