University of Southern Queensland technology hits the sweet spot for bee biosecurity

Like the tiny yet destructive honeybee pests and diseases they’re designed to detect, remote catch boxes developed at the University of Southern Queensland to intercept pest bees don’t look like a big deal to the naked eye.

But in a true case of ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’, the catch boxes are packed with advanced technology offering round the clock surveillance at ports where exotic swarms of bees are often found as cargo stowaways.

Designed specifically to catch honeybee pests like the varroa mite, the boxes contain a self-contained electronics module with camera-based bee swarm detection, a compact solar panel and battery, and 4G mobile network connectivity. The system sends alerts when a swarm is detected, and biosecurity officers can remotely catch the swarm by closing the box’s electronic door via a web portal.

Lead designer and researcher Dr Cheryl McCarthy from the University of Southern Queensland’s Centre for Agricultural Engineering said a total of 40 remote catch boxes have been manufactured for deployment to ports around the country.

“Catch boxes have been part of Australia’s surveillance strategy for some time but they’ve always relied on a manual process, where a bait box inspector would have to physically visit possibly remote port locations to check if there are any exotic or pest bees in the catch box,” she said.

“The technology we’ve developed and refined here at USQ is automating that process, so the detection task is more rapid.”

Dr McCarthy said the importance of the role the catch boxes would play in national biosecurity efforts cannot be overstated.

“Varroa mite is a major concern for Australia’s horticultural and agricultural sectors and has the potential to wipe out our natural honeybee population if the destructive mite gets into the country,” she said.

“This would have a significant impact on pollination services, as industries like melons, avocadoes, almonds and blueberries – just to name a few – are entirely dependent on honeybees.

“In fact, it’s estimated that horticultural industries save more than $50 million per year, each year, that Australia remains free of varroa mite through avoiding costs of control, paid pollination services and lost production in pollination-dependent crops.”

The work was funded through the combined Plant Health Australia and Department of Agriculture and Water Resources project 'Refinement, development and deployment of remote catchboxes as part of the overarching National Bee Pest Surveillance Program 2019-2021’.

woman smiling with technological bee boxes
Dr Cheryl McCarthy with the remote catch boxes.