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.
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 were just some of the items off the menu. And, you guessed it, honey too.
Melbourne startup Vimana Tech and Sydney and Silicon Valley-based startup Xailient worked on what they called 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.
If the algorithm notices Varroa destructor in Melbourne, agriculture workers will be notified to take a sample, test it and take action if necessary. Like a virus, early detection can prevent the pest from spreading widely.
The harmony of artificial intelligence and agriculture is an area expected to grow exponentially – in recent years it’s been used to forecast weather conditions, assess plant nutrition on farms and identify weeds.
Joel Kuperholz, co-founder of Vimana Tech, said even within beekeeping his team is eyeing further steps.
“We have the ability to upload new algorithms to detect any other anomaly or other pests or insects that might be trying to penetrate the hive and pose a risk,” 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.”
Victorian 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.”