Most of the world’s beekeepers have been stung by the damage caused by the deadly Varroa destructor mite, but Australian beekeepers have been offered new hope of fighting the parasite, thanks to an artificial intelligence (AI) based image recognition system that is helping spot the mites long before humans do.

Australia is the world’s fourth largest honey exporter, with the quality of its product recognised as a result of bees’ pollination from eucalypts and other native flora.

Our honey industry exports more than 4,500 tonnes of product annually, worth over $100m – yet that industry is under threat from pinhead-sized varroa mites that attach themselves to the thorax or abdominal folds of adult honey bees.

The mites feed on the bee’s body fat tissue and also infect pupae in the hive, in a process that can cause growth defects like stunted wings, missing legs, and other deformities.

Left unchecked, a varroa mite can destroy a bee colony in fewer than three years – making it a major threat to the European honey bees that pollinate Australia’s crops and flowers.

Port authorities, in particular, have been on high alert over the mites – which were found in April in a nest of Asian honey bees at the Port of Townsville and have also been detected in places like Melbourne.

A formal government initiative, the National Varroa Mite Eradication Program (NVMEP), was established after a 2016 outbreak and will run through April 2021.

Methods for stopping the potential spread of varroa include restrictions on the movements of bees and a comprehensive surveillance program that depends on extensive inspection.

“As the last continent where we don’t have varroa mite, we’re going to have to work with industry and innovators and entrepreneurs to try and address this as quickly as possible,” beekeeper Millie Enbom-Goad said, “so that we can still be a valid part of the industry and still supply honey to Australians.”

Hive mentality

Part marketing project and part conservation effort, the Purple Hive Project was born out of the desire to apply technology to what beekeeper and project advisor Ian Cane called a “painstakingly manual detection process” by Australia’s 20,000 registered beekeepers.

Because the brown mites are easy to spot on the bodies of infected bees, new Purple Hives incorporate a Raspberry Pi microcomputer linked to a 360-degree camera and AI-based image recognition.

The units – each a working sentinel hive – scan each and every bee for mites, or the tell-tale deformities they have caused, as they enter or leave the hive.

The solar-powered system was created at the behest of Bega Cheese Limited venture B Honey, with the help of technology company Vimana Tech and computer-vision specialist Xailient.

The system was tested in New Zealand, which already has varroa mite infections, and in Australia using 3D-printed simulated mites.

When a mite is detected, the system raises an alert on a smartphone app and sends an image of the bee to confirm what it spotted – allowing the hive to be quarantined from the rest of the stock.

Xailient’s light-weight AI algorithm has been designed to run directly on the hive device, allowing the hives to run independently wherever they are situated.

Near-ubiquitous outbreaks of the deadly varroa mites are contributing to a global plunge in bee numbers – 40 per cent of US honeybee colonies, for example, died in 2018 alone – that experts say could hasten the “catastrophic collapse” of insects from Earth by 2119.

That decline is also being hastened by issues such as habitat destruction, pesticide use and poor beekeeping practices, but wider screening for parasites would potentially help stem the impact of one of those causes.

“The wellbeing of our bees has a direct effect on our economy, environment and lifestyle,” Cane said.

“If technology can play a role in protecting this amazing species, then we need to embrace it, before it’s too late.”