Since the European honey bee, (Apis mellifera) was first introduced into Australia in the early 19th Century, the beekeeping industry has grown significantly and feral colonies have spread across the continent. Feral honey bee populations now perform the majority of pollination in agro-ecosystems within Australia and many wild plants are also pollinated by honey bees. However feral honey bees also have the potential to negatively affect native plants and animals. Given the importance of the honeybee to pollination services, and its potential inimical impacts on Australian ecosystems, it is surprising that the densities of feral colonies in different parts of Australia are largely unknown. Thus, the aim of my honours project is to provide quantitative data on the abundance of feral colonies across broad scales in Australia. Such information will allow us to determine if the density of feral colonies is sufficient to provide adequate pollination in agricultural areas or if colony number in natural habitats is sufficiently large to be of concern. Furthermore, Australia is particularly vulnerable to future honey bee losses due to the expected arrival of Varroa destructor, which has spread globally with the exception of Australia. Thus the data collected will provide a baseline from which future impact assessments can be made in the event of the arrival of this parasitic mite or other exotic parasites or pathogens.
Perhaps the lack of feral honey bee population data can best be explained by the difficulty of locating colonies by foot, as nests are often concealed and inaccessible. Fortunately, a new genetic method is available that enables assessment of the density of feral colonies. I will use this new method to generate density estimates at sites of agricultural and conservation importance and will assess the practicality and robustness of this method as future tool for providing rapid honey bee population assessments.