Bees abuzz for biosecurity in avocados

30 March 2023

Bees can help prove Australia's valuable avocado crop is free of a pathogen that could be a barrier to exports according to research by The University of Queensland and the national science agency CSIRO.

Associate Professor Andrew Geering from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) said monitoring for avocado sunblotch is important to protect lucrative overseas markets.

Headshot of Associate Professor Andrew Geering
Associate Professor Andrew Geering. Credit: Megan Pope

“We’ve had an active control plan for avocado sunblotch since the 1980s because it has the potential to decrease yield of a tree by about 80 per cent,” Dr Geering said.

“Even though this pathogen has nearly been eradicated, there is a chance there are still pockets of infection around the place, and this is a concern for Australia’s trading partners.

“Because the viroid is seed-transmitted at a very high rate, a child in New Zealand using an infected avocado seed for a school project could introduce sunblotch to their country.” 

The research team sought a simple way to check for avocado sunblotch without having to individually test every tree, and found bees were the answer through a concept developed by CSIRO scientist Dr John Roberts who had detected plant viruses alongside bee viruses in hives.

“Avocado trees are 10 metres tall by 5 metres wide and there might be 20,000 in an orchard, and we needed a way to efficiently gather samples,” Dr Geering said.

“Bees are brought in to pollinate the trees as a normal farming practice to improve yields.

“They take the pollen back to a central location, their hive, so effectively they’ve done the sampling work for us and all we have to do is test the pollen.

“It’s much better than a team of people climbing up ladders or riding cherry pickers to collect leaves.

“Bees are reliable, free and very thorough in their sampling activity.” 

Avocado with sunblotch Credit Dr Lara Pretorius
Avocado with sunblotch Credit: Dr Lara Pretorius

Dr Geering plans to implement the bee surveillance more broadly.

“Now that we’ve demonstrated the principle, we’d like to roll it out in the largest avocado producing area in Australia, the Atherton Tableland, to demonstrate that it’s free of the pathogen,” he said.

Dr Roberts said there was great potential for bees to be recruited for surveillance tasks with approximately 530,000 commercially managed hives delivering paid pollination services around Australia for 65 per cent of our horticultural and agricultural crops.

“For avocado sunblotch we can use them for annual monitoring during pollination across wide areas,” Dr Roberts said.

“This approach can also provide surveillance for multiple pathogens simultaneously of both honeybees and plants, making this a powerful cross-industry biosecurity tool.” 

The research was funded from the Avocado Industry levy, through Hort Innovation.

It has been published online (

Images and video are available via Dropbox.

Media: Associate Professor Andrew Geering,, +61 (0)407 035 941; Dr John Roberts,; QAAFI Media, Natalie MacGregor,, +61 (0)409 135 651.

The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation is a research institute at The University of Queensland supported by the Queensland Government via the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.