The killer is a mite called Varroa destructor that attaches itself to bees and feeds off their blood. Australia's leading bee expert, Dr Denis Anderson, principal research scientist at CSIRO entomology, says Australia is the only major honey-producing country free of the mite, but with New Zealand succumbing to varroa in 2000, it's only a matter of time before it arrives here. The threatened honey industry employs about 2000 commercial apiarists and turns over $100m a year, but Anderson says the far more costly impact would be its effect on agricultural crops. "A lot of our pollination is reliant on feral bees. It will wipe out all the feral bee population, and then the hive colonies will be reduced."

Apples, pears, melons and root vegetables such as onions all rely to some extent on bees for pollination, but the $150m-a-year almond industry is expected to suffer most, because almonds are 100% reliant on bees for pollination.

Despite the inevitability of the incursion, Australia isn't ready for varroa, Anderson says. "At the CSIRO we did an economic analysis of how much money Australia should spend to try and keep varroa out of the country for the next 30 years. That analysis showed we could put in $25m to $50m every year for the next 30 years and we'd still be in the black. That's the sort of effect varroa will have. We should be putting in funds to do this." In July, federal agriculture minister Peter McGauran announced that the bee industry would receive $390,000 to develop a plan to deal with the challenges facing the industry. At present, only about $500,000 a year is spent on bee research,  but Anderson says scientists urgently need more research dollars.

There is another threat on the horizon for the honey bee. In the past year, apiarists across 36 US states have reported the mysterious disappearance of up to 70% of their bees. The disaster has been dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD), but no one knows exactly what it is or how to stop it.

Dr Jeff Pettis, research entomologist at the US Bee Research Laboratory and a speaker at this week's 40th international Apimondia bee-keeping congress in Melbourne, says "there are a number of factors coming together to cause the colony losses, the prime suspects being varroa, pesticide exposure and things like poor nutrition. If you couple these factors with a pathogen [virus] it could explain what we're seeing."

Anderson dismisses a report published in the American Journal of Science last week that claims CCD is caused by the Israeli acute paralysis bee virus, imported into the country on the back of Australian bees. "The methodology underpinning the study is fundamentally flawed. The way the samples were collected gives me cause for serious doubt."

The typical response to varroa has been to fight it with chemicals. Pettis sees this as a short-term fix, because the mites keep developing resistance to the poisons. "We're running out of things to try in the chemical arsenal. My advice is, think resistant bees."

Anderson says that given time and money, researchers could isolate the specific chemical signal produced by the honey bee that attracts the mite, and locate the gene that produces the signal. This would enable scientists to develop a mite-resistant strain of bees. "If we want to arrive at this within a five- to 10-year period, we'd probably need to put in about $3m on just that project every year," says Anderson.

At the conference, Pettis says, the message will be research over reaction. "It costs a lot more to fix a problem than prevent a problem."

Apimondia sponsors a week long Conference every other year, with the current meeting in Melbourne, Australia.

This CATCH THE BUZZ message sponsored by Bee Culture, The Magazine Of American Beekeeping. See the Bee Culture Web Page for all of the up-to-the minute news on CCD and the current research on that problem.