While the rest of the world has been stung by a global bee cri­sis, Aus­tralia is sav­ing them, says Shan­non Har­ley.

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for pol­li­nat­ing about one-third of food crops around the world – ev­ery­thing from al­monds to av­o­ca­dos – but pop­u­la­tions in North Amer­ica and Europe have been dec­i­mated by the var­roa mite par­a­site and mono­cul­ture, which is a dou­ble-edged sword that causes habi­tat loss and pes­ti­cide poi­son­ing. These threats don’t nec­es­sar­ily kill bees im­me­di­ately, but af­fect their im­mu­nity, mem­ory and every­day func­tion­ing – much in the same way as one ci­garette won’t kill you, but smok­ing two packs a day even­tu­ally might.

This per­fect storm is called Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der and causes around a 30 per cent an­nual die-off in colonies around the world. Ev­ery­where, that is, ex­cept Aus­tralia. It seems we are the lucky coun­try for bees (and farm­ers, too, who ben­e­fit from their pol­li­na­tion ser­vices). We are the last var­roa-free haven in the world, and in­dus­trial farm­ing and pes­ti­cide use has not reached the scale of the US. This keeps our bees at the fore­front of re­search to keep it that way.

Bees have pre­dictable be­hav­iour. They orient their flight to the sun and use the earth’s mag­netic field to sense di­rec­tion. This makes them the ca­naries of the en­vi­ron­ment, so any change in their be­hav­iour is a warn­ing sign for us.

In a world first, re­searchers at the CSIRO are fit­ting colonies with ‘bee back­packs’, sen­sors that record where they spend their time, how far they travel and what they get up to. The tiny tech is cre­at­ing a huge buzz world­wide and is head­ing to the Ama­zon next. Bees are vi­tal to our lives, and now the fu­ture of world pop­u­la­tions may rest on the shoul­ders of the Aussie bee.

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