A FUNGUS that lays waste to bee hives has not developed a more lethal Australian strain, Bendigo research suggests.
The fungus causes chalkbrood disease, which leaves bee larvae dead when they are sealed in their cells as pupae.
There is a lot at stake. The industry is worth roughly $100 million and chalkbrood disease can severely weaken honey yields if left unchecked.
Bendigo scientist Jody Gerdts' research - published in the March edition of the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology - cannot prove conclusively that a deadlier chalbrood strain is not out there.
But it does show that a number strains circulating through parts of Australia are no deadlier than others.
The findings would help scientists put finite time and resources into other factors that can shape how the disease moves through beehives, Dr Gerdts said.
"It [the research] has done what most science does, which is cross these sort of factors off the list, but it begs a lot of questions," she said.
One of those questions is how bees' genetic makeup can help them resist the fungus.
Another is how breeders like Dr Gerdts can shape the future of bees through selective breeding.
The research could also have implications for beekeepers.
Dr Gerdts said beekeepers will also have to give more thought to their bees' diets and what flowers they make sure are available near to hives.
"Nature does not always provide," she said.
"We can sometimes think 'there should be plenty of flowers around. Surely, the bees will be fine'. We might need a more balanced approach to nutrition."
That is even more important in a country like Australia, where bees have a more limited diet than those in other parts of the world, Dr Gerdts said.
Part of the challenge is that chalkbrood disease slowly creeps through hives over a number of months, tightening its grip.
"One generation of bees will get a little weak and not be able to feed the next very well. Then that new generation struggles to feed the next, so you actually end up with a disease outbreak three or four months down the track," Dr Gerdts said.
"So it's not as easy as feeding one generation of bees well. It forces us to take a more global approach to our management, I think."
Dr Gerdts completed the research for her PhD thesis at La Trobe University.
That component of the study was funded by AgriFutures Australia.
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