Purple hives are here to keep alien mites out of Victoria’s food bowl

Beekeeper Ian Cane normally uses the “sugar shake” to check if his bees have been infested by a tiny but incredibly dangerous alien pest.

Every week he gathers 300 bees in a jar, fills it with icing sugar, rattles it and looks to see if a millimetre-long mite called Varroa destructor falls from the bees’ abdomens.

Artificial intelligence experts from start-ups Vimana Tech and Xailient prepare the purple hives at the Port of Melbourne on Monday.Credit:Joe Armao

Thankfully, Mr Cane has never found Varroa destructor , which sucks fat tissue out of individual bees, spreads viruses, and can eventually kill off entire hives.

Australia is the only continent in the world free of the exotic mite that would threaten 20,000 horticulture businesses if it entered the country. It would also profoundly disrupt Australia’s food production – about two-thirds of Victoria’s plant-based food requires pollination by bees.

Imagine Mr Cane’s excitement, then, at Australia’s first artificially intelligent beehives launching at the Port of Melbourne on Tuesday.

Bold purple in colour and shaped like a Ned Kelly mask, the hives feature 360-degree cameras that feed back a rolling video of bees entering and exiting. An algorithm has been trained to detect a healthy bee from one carrying Varroa destructor, saving beekeepers hours of manual labour every week.

Varroa mites on a drone bee larvae.

“If you look in a beehive say in the middle of summer, we’re in full production, there’s 45,000 to 60,000 bees in that hive. So to find two varroa [mites] is literally the needle in the haystack, and a big haystack. It’s painstaking,” said Mr Cane, who is based in East Gippsland.

“With this I can have bees 600 or 700 kilometres away from my home, I can sit there on a laptop, see this happening and flag any problems in real time.”

The Port of Melbourne was chosen for the first purple hives because the greatest threat of Varroa destructor entering Australia is via cargo ships, where infested bees from overseas could be lodged between shipping containers.

Only a savvy sea captain who noticed a swarm of bees and alerted the Victorian government in 2018 prevented an outbreak of the pest.

An Agriculture Victoria worker prepares to transfer bees into their new hive.Credit:Joe Armao

Earlier this month Woolworths released images of what their shelves would look like without bees. Apples, avocados, canola oil, nuts, coffee beans and strawberries are some of the items off the menu. And, you guessed it, honey too.

Melbourne start-up Vimana Tech and Sydney and Silicon Valley-based start-up Xailient worked on what they call world-first technology for over a year.

Shivy Yohanandan, Xailient’s chief technology officer, said the artificial intelligence acted like a human’s eyes, completing the round-the-clock work that a beekeeper realistically cannot.

“Just like teaching a child, we trained the algorithm and over time, like all AI, it gets better and better,” he said.

Deformed bees caused by Varroa parasitism

Mr Cane, whose family has been breeding bees for more than 100 years in Victoria, said his “head is just spinning” at what other efficiencies the technology could bring to his industry.

“It will really change how we operate as beekeepers,” he said.

“We’re currently preparing hives to do almond pollination, that’s a billion dollar farming industry in Australia. The world would be a very different place for humans without honey bees.”

Victoria’s Agriculture Minister Mary-Anne Thomas called the hives “the front line” in supporting Australia’s 12,800 beekeepers.

“We know that the varroa mite is in New Zealand already, and we’re working very hard to ensure that it does not enter Victoria,” she said. “I would look forward to a project like the purple hive rolling out across the country.”

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